Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can A Pig Really Give You The Flu?

Since I never caught the flu from a pig, I can’t answer that for myself. But if you look at reports out of Mexico, many have (approximately 1,200, according to the latest count). And some – approximately 80 – have died from it. And according to various news sources, depending on which you read, there are a number of cases in the United States (I think the current count is 19 or 20) as well as others worldwide, including a number of possible cases in New Zealand, France, and Israel.

What does this mean? A good question – I don’t think anyone really knows. If you listen to representatives of the World Health Organization, they attempt to take an objective view of this situation but, at least in my opinion, they fail miserably. Add media coverage to this, and the formula for widespread panic slowly but steadily comes together. Don’t believe me? Fine – you don’t have to. But look around at all of the online (and offline) news coverage as well as the WHO’s reporting, and I think you’ll find this to be a pretty accurate assessment as to what is going on.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying it isn’t serious. Anytime something like this happens (historically, widespread Influenza outbreaks have happened 3 times in the past 100 years: 1918, 1957, and 1968) there is cause for concern. In the three super outbreaks during the 20th century, all were classified as being pandemic. The 1918 outbreak was especially aggressive; it was known as the “Spanish Flu”, and approximately 40% of the world’s population was infected with a death toll in the millions. And the other two – 1957’s “Asian Flu” and 1968’s “Hong Kong Flu”, while not as virulent as the 1918 outbreak – were also quite significant in their infection and death rates. Research found that all were different Influenza A variants; H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2, respectively for each of the three outbreaks I’ve mentioned. All were different, and none were predicted to occur. In fact, Influenza outbreaks are always difficult if not impossible to predict simply due to the nature of the virus; it mutates and changes constantly, which is why if you are vaccinated annually there is always a chance that you will not be totally protected from infection.

That said, is there really a reason to panic? I would say that the answer to this question is a resounding no. I say that simply because the world has not ended with past Influenza outbreaks, and it won’t end with this one, either. Sure – people get sick. Some die. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life, and when someone dies as a result of Influenza, it is usually not because of the virus itself. More often than not, the cause is secondary, mostly an opportunistic event like Pneumonia that developed because the immune system was already compromised. However, the vast majority of people do not die from Influenza; most cases resolve in 3-5 days. And there are ways to deal with it.

I think most of us know the symptoms: a sudden onset, body aches, lethargy, fever and chills, and fatigue. Some people experience nausea and vomiting, a sore throat with a cough, or considerable nasal drainage. Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms, and anti-viral medications – those most commonly prescribed include Tamiflu and Relenza, although Symmetrel and Flumadine are also available – are good for shortening the amount of time someone is symptomatic. It has been reported that Tamiflu has been found to be effective against the identified strain.

With respect to prevention, common sense should prevail. Follow the same precautions you would follow during the winter flu season. Follow a healthy diet. Keep your hands clean, both with frequent washing and with hand sanitizers. Keep surfaces, like counter tops, telephones, door handles, bathroom fixtures, etc., clean as much as possible. If there is any chance of contact with someone known to be infected, then wear a mask. If you’re a health care provider of any sort, be diligent about following precautions because your own exposure level will be much higher than anyone else’s. If you’ve had a flu shot, you may stand a better chance of being protected than someone who hasn’t – again, it’s not a guarantee as this strain is reported to be a mix of swine, avian, and human strains all thrown together, but it is probably better than nothing at all.

The bottom line is simple: if you are in a position where you could be exposed to it, and you are careful, you won’t get sick. Then there is always the question as to how far it will spread. I don’t think anyone knows that, either, but due to the nature of this outbreak and the precautions being taken by those responsible for public health, I’m inclined to think that it will not go as far as some might predict. And I’m always skeptical of the media.

You should be, too. And I’m waiting for someone to dub this the “Mexican Flu” if it hasn’t happened already....


Laura said...

We don't have any pigs around here. Great title, Walt and a good post. Hope your doing well.

Karen Brook Westhaver said...

Wise words, Walt. But, that's your trademark anyway :-) It's in Canada, too as well as in a few more states here. What makes me more nervous, though, is the pharma company claiming to be able to come up with a viable vaccine for this in 13 weeks. This, such a quickly and highly mutating virus as it is! Thirteen weeks? Yikes. I won't be signing up for that one.

Susie Hemingway said...

I liked this post very much Walt, I was at the weekend, chatting to the pigs laying in the sun at our local farm..( love their faces..yeh I know..mad old trout I am) Had gone to buy chickens for some nice free- range eggs at home... these pigs looked too lovely to be carrying any old virus... still I'll have to be more careful when chatting in future cos' of Hamada! BTW thanks for the very nice comment on Micheal's blog..Best Regards Susie

Jon said...

Species jumping viruses can be serious critters. Killing the host is a crummy way to propagate, but with a new species to infect, the evolution of the virus isn't fine tuned and the result can be catastrophic like Ebola.

I'm watching this one carfully. No reason to panic, but plenty of reasons to pay attention and avoid exposure.