Swine flu factfile – Facts
The facts on swine flu:
WHAT IS IT?
Swine influenza is a common and sometimes fatal respiratory disease
among pigs, first identified in 1930, that is caused by a Type A
influenza virus. Normally the disease is specific only to pigs. But
sometimes pigs can harbour more than one flu virus at one time, which
enables the pathogens to mix genes. As a result, a new viral strain
emerges that can cross the species barrier to humans, starting with
people in contact with infected pigs. The latest threat is a strain of
the H1N1 type of flu virus.
WHY THE ALARM?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the virus can be contagious
among humans in close contact and the outbreak has “pandemic
potential,” meaning there is risk of a spread across regions or
continents. In the past century, novel flu viruses have killed tens of
millions of people and cost billions of dollars in economic costs.
Worries about a new pandemic have focused in recent years on the H5N1
strain of bird flu, which has killed around 250 people since 2003,
mainly in Southeast Asia. But H5N1 is hard to transmit among humans,
and its threat has been contained by culling infected poultry.
WHAT ABOUT THE UNKNOWNS?
Experts insist there is no certainty that a pandemic will happen or if
so that it will be a mass killer. There are many unknowns about the
new strain, especially how easily it spreads between people, how
virulent it is or could become. Figuring this out will be the work of
gene scientists and epidemiologists.
WHICH COUNTRIES ARE MOST AFFECTED?
Mexico is the epicentre of the outbreak, with 103 confirmed and
suspected deaths as of Monday and about 400 people hospitalised. In 10
other countries, there have been 57 confirmed or suspected cases, none
of them fatal, among people returning from Mexico. The United States
has had 20 confirmed cases, Canada six confirmed cases and Spain one
case. Several countries from Colombia to New Zealand are investigating
HOW DOES THE VIRUS SPREAD?
Swine flu is thought to spread like typical flu, i.e. in viral
particles expelled in coughs and sneezes that are then breathed in by
someone nearby, or deposited on surfaces that are then touched by the
hand and transmitted to the mouth, nose or eyes. People with the virus
may be able to infect others beginning a day before symptoms develop,
and up to seven days or more after becoming sick. Young children may
be contagious for somewhat longer.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Sudden fever above 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit),
cough, headache, aching joints, nasal congestion, general fatigue and
lack of appetite. Some people who have contracted the virus report
runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In past cases,
swine flu has caused pneumonia and respiratory failure and worsened
chronic medical conditions.
HAVE THERE BEEN OUTBREAKS IN THE PAST?
From December 2005 through February 2009, only 12 cases of swine flu
were reported in the United States. In 1988 a pregnant woman died
after contact with sick pigs. In 1976, swine flu at an US military
base at Fort Dix, New Jersey killed one soldier. Four were
hospitalized with pneumonia. At first, experts feared the strain was
related to the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed millions, but the
strain never spread beyond the base.
WHAT TREATMENTS ARE AVAILABLE?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends
oseltamivir (marketed as Tamiflu) and zanamivir (marketed as Relenza)
for treating or preventing infection. These drugs work by preventing
the virus from reproducing. Most of the previously reported swine flu
cases have recovered fully without requiring medical attention and
without antiviral medicines.
IS THERE A SWINE FLU VACCINE?
There is a vaccine for pigs, but not for humans. It is unclear whether
current “seasonal” vaccines, designed to combat smaller genetic shifts
in major strains of flu virus that are in circulation, may provide a
WHAT ARE THE PREVENTATIVE MEASURES?
Public health authorities in many countries have installed classic
control measures, screening points of entry and isolating people
suspected to have fallen ill. Mexico has ordered the closure of
schools and cancelled public gatherings. Individuals can wear a face
mask, avoid greeting someone with a kiss or a handshake, wash their
hands frequently and clean commonly-touched surfaces such as
telephones, door handles, tables and lift buttons.
CAN SWINE FLU BE CAUGHT FROM EATING PORK?
No. The virus is respiratory, and not transmitted by food. Cooking
pork to an internal temperature of 71 F (160 C) kills viruses and
SOURCES: WHO, the US CDC, European Centre for Disease Prevention and
Control (ECDC), French Ministry of health
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