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Swine flu – what is it, what is the risk and how to protect oneself?

Although it is rather bird flu that has caused panic in the last years, its swine variation has already attacked people before. So far, however, there have only been some isolated cases, whereas this time we are facing a bigger danger. As doctors claim, swine flu can be more dangerous for people than the infamous SARS. Is there really anything to be afraid of?

Some occasional cases of swine flu infection have already been observed before (one case every year or every two years), but its symptoms resembled those caused by ordinary flu, so it is not known exactly how many illness cases were not recorded. Thus, the actual scale of illness cases among people is unknown. The recorded illness cases took place in the USA and Spain. The illness proceeded in different ways, from its mild course to the fatal disease.

In September 1988 a 32-year-old pregnant woman died of pneumonia after an 8-day stay in hospital and the swine flu virus was found in her (two weeks before she had visited an exhibition of pigs which turned out to have been infected). However, the most famous case is the swine flu epidemic among soldiers in New Jersey in 1976 where one of the soldiers died. It is not known where the virus came from, after a month it completely disappeared and it was transmitted via close contact with an infected person, which is quite simple in the case of closed flu.

What is swine flu?

It is an acute contagious disease caused by the A/ H1N1 virus which is characterized by a high incidence of infections in pigs but a low death rate. Flu epidemics affect pigs seasonally. Unfortunately, people have been attacked by a mutated virus version containing both pig genes and those of human and bird flu (pigs can be attacked by viruses of these flu varieties as well, which leads to mutation).

Epidemics among pigs have been found in many countries; in North and South America, in Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, Kenya, China and Japan.

What are the symptoms?

They are similar to those that accompany seasonal flu, including a fever, weakness, lack of appetite, cough, and for some people also a runny nose, a sore throat, nausea, chest pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Symptoms in children that should be alarming:

    fast breathing or breathing problems
    lack of appetite
    no interaction
    flu-like symptoms, high temperature, cough
    skin rash
How can one become infected?

People usually become infected by contact with an infected pig (thus, workers of slaughterhouses and breeders are particularly exposed to danger), though some cases of infections occurred among people who had had no contact with animals, which worries epidemiologists most. CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) has confirmed that the virus is transmitted from people to people, but it is still not known how much infectious it is.

However, so far transmissions from people to people have been limited to close contacts. Infection among people is the same as in the case of seasonal flu, i.e. via the droplet route (sneezing, coughing), and also by contact with discharge from an infected person’s respiratory tract.

Infected persons can transmit the virus to others both before and after the symptoms occur.

How long can the virus survive outside the body?

Some viruses and bacteria can live for even 2 hours on such surfaces as handkerchiefs, door handles or desks.

How to protect oneself against infection?

First of all, it is necessary to wash hands. One should not touch any surfaces that could have contact with the virus (the infected person’s discharge). One should avoid any contact with infected persons and should not touch one’s eyes, nose and mouth, as the virus is quickly transmitted this way. The infected persons should certainly cover their mouth and nose while sneezing and coughing and they should throw out paper handkerchiefs!

Like in the case of bird flu, it is also necessary to wear filtering half-masks of at least P2 class with the EC certificate (in the USA these are N95 masks with the NIOSH certificate), half-masks with changeable filters of EN 143 P2 type with the European EC certificate or any comparable protective equipment with the national or regional certificate, pursuant to relevant national directives on industrial safety issued by appropriate government organs or health protection institutions. Filtering half-masks of any higher class can also be used. Disposable personal protective equipment should be destroyed in a proper way, whereas multiple use equipment should be appropriately cleaned and disinfected. After taking off protective clothes it is necessary to use relevant procedures providing hand hygiene.

Is it safe to eat pork?

Yes. Swine flu is not transmitted in this way. The swine flu virus is killed at the temperature of 700 C. It is safe to eat meat properly prepared and subjected to thermal treatment (cooking, frying, baking, etc.).

How can we diagnose infection in people?

It can be best diagnosed 4-5 days after the symptoms have occurred, when the person is highly infectious, although e.g. children can spread the virus for up to 10 days or even longer.

What can be used to treat swine flu?

Unfortunately, the viruses examined in the case of recent infections in people were resistant to a part of antivirus medicines. Two of the antiviral medicines present on the market are recommended: oseltamivir (which is known in our country as Tamiflu) and zanamivir (known as Relenza).

Is there any swine flu vaccine?

There is no vaccine protecting people. There are only vaccines designed for pigs. We still do not know to what extent, and whether at all, any seasonal flu vaccines protect against its swine variety, as the A H1N1 swine flu virus is much different from its human variety.

Are we in danger of pandemic?

It is highly probable that people who do not have contact with pigs on a daily basis do not have natural immunity to this virus. However, it is hard to predict the range of pandemic. It depends on the level of immunity in people (to both the swine virus and the ordinary, seasonal one) and the malignance of the virus itself.

Probably the biggest epidemic experienced by the humankind was the so-called Spanish influenza that killed 50 million people in 1918. It remains the reference point for warning messages about any other potential cases of pandemic. The comparison to the Spanish influenza has thus become a cliché, but this time it is more relevant than before. The influenza virus usually attacks children, elderly people and those whose immune system is weakened. Recent cases, like most victims in 1918, are young people enjoying good health.

According to the WHO classification, the current pandemic alert level in the case of swine flu is 6 in the six-degree scale.