This fall, many Oklahoma families are lining up for their flu shots as usual, but this flu season is likely to shape up a little differently from those in years past. In addition to the “standard” flu, this year there is increased concern because of the prevalence of the H1N1 virus, or “The Virus Formerly Known as Swine Flu.”
While H1N1 has had a great deal of media coverage, many families are still unsure as to how H1N1 differs from regular influenza, and how they can best protect themselves.
What is H1N1?
In April of this year, a new influenza virus was detected in the United States. Originally referred to as “swine flu,” it was thought that the virus was very similar to the influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs. Further testing has since shown that H1N1 is actually very different from what typically circulates in pigs. In fact, it has genes from influenza viruses that are found in pigs (swine), birds (avian), and humans.
Much like seasonal flu, the virus is spread from person-to-person contact. The symptoms of H1N1 flu in humans are very similar to seasonal flu and may include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. A significant number of people who have been infected with this virus also have reported diarrhea and vomiting. As with seasonal flu, the illness can range from a mild case lasting only a few days to a severe case that could result in more serious complications or even death.
So how exactly does H1N1 differ from seasonal flu, exactly? From a practical standpoint, in most cases, it doesn’t. It’s important to emphasize that seasonal flu can be just as or even more serious than H1N1. Every year, 36,000 Americans die from complications of seasonal flu, which is far higher than the roughly 600 reported deaths to date that have been attributed to complications of H1N1. Of those hospitalized with H1N1 flu, approximately 70% had an underlying medical condition such as asthma, diabetes, suppressed immune systems, kidney or heart disease, or pregnancy. These are the same populations that are considered high risk for complications of seasonal flu, with one notable exception: the elderly. People over the age of 65 account for 90% of seasonal influenza deaths every year, but they do not appear to be at any increased risk of developing complications of H1N1. According to the CDC, the H1N1 virus has caused the greatest disease burden on people under the age of 25.
Treatment and Prevention
While some of the statistics sound alarming, seasonal flu and H1N1 are typically treatable, and vaccines are available that may help prevent the diseases. Angie Grimmett is a Nurse Practitioner and co-owner of Integrative Medical Solutions, a family practice in Edmond. To prevent the spread of H1N1 and seasonal flu, she suggests “Maintaining good hygiene and frequently washing your hands with soap and water is very important, especially after sneezing, coughing, or touching your mouth, nose, and eyes. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and discard the tissue after use.
Avoid close contact (when possible) with people who are ill, and if you’re ill, stay home from work or school.” Grimmett also notes that H1N1 and seasonal flu respond well to anti-viral medications when symptoms are caught early, but cautions, “Patients should not routinely ask for or take anti-viral medications as a precaution, because over-use of these medications can lead to flu viruses becoming resistant to the medications.”
Stephanie Harris is a pharmacist at Hospital Discount Pharmacy, which has offered flu vaccines to the public for a number of years. Vaccines typically reduce the likelihood of contracting the flu by about 80%, and are considered the best means of prevention. Is the flu vaccine for everyone? “If there is a shortage, as has happened in the past, we vaccinate the highest risk groups first, which includes children ages six months to five years, pregnant women, healthcare workers, people over 55 and anyone with a chronic health condition. We don’t anticipate any shortages of seasonal flu vaccine this year, however, so we recommend everyone six months and up get a flu shot.” Those allergic to eggs or who have been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome should not receive the vaccine.
The H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available later this year, perhaps as early as next month. The vaccine is still being tested, so some of the specifics are still in question. “Originally, we were expecting to have to administer everyone a booster a month after the H1N1 vaccine, and that may still be the case. Just today, though, studies are showing a good immune response with a single shot in some countries. With H1N1 vaccine, we will recommend that the same high risk population (except patients over 55) get vaccinated first, and then we’ll see where we are,” says Harris.
Remember that both types of flu are responding well to anti-viral treatment, and vaccines are an excellent means of prevention. Frequent handwashing and staying home if you feel symptomatic are important steps for preventing illness. Take care of yourself and your children this season, and contact a healthcare provider for more information on treatment and prevention of influenza.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions in Edmond.