April 29th, 2009
03:54 PM ET

How can you get protection from the flu?

By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

The details we heard this morning were vague but heartbreaking nonetheless: a 22-month-old from Mexico died from the swine flu in Texas. As a parent, the loss of a child is the worst imaginable tragedy. For those of us living in the United States, the toddler’s death lets us know that we do not necessarily have protection against this new virus that had until now resulted in deaths in Mexico but nowhere else.

There’s something else. Something history is warning us. The four deadliest pandemics in the last 120 years arrived at the end of a flu season, dissipated and then returned with a vengeance the following winter. That’s what happened in the deadliest pandemic ever: the so-called Spanish flu, which arrived in March 1918 but took its devastating toll in the winter of 1918-19. More than 20 million died worldwide. Worldwide flu outbreaks in 1889, 1957 and 1968 also followed this pattern. The virus’ second appearance in the winter was in each case much more deadly than the initial outbreak in the spring.

This history is no doubt on the mind of Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. At his briefing Tuesday, he said the CDC was considering making a swine flu vaccine. But it isn’t simply a matter of adding this vaccine to the seasonal vaccine offered each fall.

The seasonal flu vaccine for the winter of 2009-10 is already in production, and the government has already chosen which three flu strains to protect us against. The swine flu isn’t among them, and the process doesn’t allow for simply adding a fourth strain to the mix. That means a swine flu vaccine would have to be separate shot.

If a separate swine flu shot became available this fall, would you take it?

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April 29th, 2009
02:33 PM ET

How should the new flu be treated?

Here are some of your most frequently asked questions about treatment and medication for the swine flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that it would begin referring to the illness as the 2009 H1N1 virus.

What medicine is available if I get sick with the swine flu?

CNN: The antiviral medicines Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) have shown they can kill the new flu strain. You should take the medicine within two days of contracting the flu. The medicine is more effective when taken in the early phase of the infection.

At this time, CDC recommends the use of Tamiflu or Relenza for the treatment and/or prevention of infection with swine influenza viruses. The federal government is releasing nearly 13 million doses of antiviral medications to states to stem the spread of swine flu.

Meanwhile, national health officials said in a news conference Wednesday that efforts are under way to create a vaccine against the new strain of flu.

Should I take an anti-viral medicine now to be safe?

CNN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking Tamiflu or Relenza as a precaution only for people living in households with someone who may be sick with swine flu. Even then, the CDC recommends these medicines for those under 5, over 65, or pregnant.

The CDC also recommends the drugs for schoolchildren with chronic medical conditions who have had face-to-face contact with a confirmed, probable or suspected swine flu case. Also, old, young, or pregnant travelers to Mexico, or those traveling to Mexico with chronic medical conditions. Health care workers, first responders, and border workers in areas with confirmed cases of swine flu should also be considered taking anti-viral medication as a precaution, the CDC says.

How would a pregnant woman be treated for the swine flu?

CNN: The CDC recommends that pregnant women who meet current case definitions for confirmed, probable or suspected swine flu infection should receive treatments that are used for people who are at higher risk of complications.  Treatment guidance for clinicians treating pregnant women is on the CDC Web site.

Q: What does it mean for a global pandemic?

CNN: The worst global pandemic in modern times was the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919. It affected about a third of the human race, and killed at least 40 million people in less than a year, according to the Harvard Medical School. The economy went into a deep recession and the average length of life dropped for 10 years.

As of Wednesday, the WHO phase of the current pandemic alert is 4, on a scale of 1-6, which acknowledges increased risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.  Phase 6 is a global pandemic.

For more information, see our previous posts and the latest about the first confirmed swine flu death in the United States.

Filed under: Global Health • H1N1 Flu

April 29th, 2009
02:07 PM ET

April 29th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

How are symptoms different from a common flu?

This morning, CNN answers questions from viewers who are concerned about symptoms and their travel history.  As we learn more about the swine flu, we are using CNN's newsgathering resources to help answer some of our viewers' most frequently asked questions.

Q: How can you tell whether you have a common flu or swine flu?

CNN: The symptoms of the current swine flu and seasonal flu are very similar. Reports suggest that this flu virus may result in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea more often than the typical flu. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta says doctors in Mexico have reported seeing sudden dizziness as well. There’s no way to tell for sure without getting tested. If you’re feverish or have other flu-like symptoms such as a cough or a sore throat, you should see a doctor.

One positive aspect is that the swine flu cases appeared near the end of influenza season, Dr. Richard Besser, the acting CDC director told a news conference Tuesday. Had the outbreak occurred in January or February, public health officials would have had greater difficulty because of the number of people infected with the common flu.

Q: My family returned from Mexico this week. We aren't sick, but aren't sure if we should stay away from other people. Can we spread the virus even if we feel ok?

CNN: In general, people who are not sick probably do not put other people at risk, said Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.  There is no recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization that they should be quarantined.

Q: Will the current economic situation make the swine flu outbreak worse because of unemployment or uninsured Americans who may delay going to the doctor because of their current financial situation?

CNN: If more people go untreated because they lack insurance or the money to pay to see a doctor, it would likely cause those people to become sicker than they would have been otherwise. Lack of care would not affect the spread of the disease if those people remained isolated and avoided close contact with others, as the CDC has recommended.

Q: How long can the virus survive on objects? If someone sneezes and touches a grocery cart how will that cart carry the virus?

CNN: The virus survives on surfaces certainly for a number of hours. Even though the virus can survive on surfaces, the likelihood of it being transmitted from one person to another via a phone or surface is slim. It needs to get down into your lungs to make you sick, said Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. “I personally would not have a major fear of environmental contamination,” he said.  “Virtually all influenza is transmitted from sneezing and coughing.”


For more information, see our previous posts and Facts about swine flu and check back on Dr. Gupta’s blog for more answers.

Filed under: Global Health • H1N1 Flu

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.