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Swine Flu: Questions and Answers from Harvard Medical School

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's note: The media has been abuzz about the swine flu, which has sickened and killed people in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere. From cable channels to newspapers, stories of the flu outbreak are everywhere, but much confusion remains. 

Harvard Medical School has written an article that explains the disease, its origins, treatment and dangers. Plus, learn about symptoms of the flu and precautions to help keep you healthy. Their article answers all your FAQs about swine flu to debunk rumors and help you rest easy.

By Harvard Medical School

An epidemic of swine flu has recently developed in Mexico and the United States, says the CDC. Swine flu has killed many people, and the outbreak has features that suggest it could become a global pandemic. A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads around the whole world. Pandemics also often cause more severe disease than epidemics.

As of Sunday, April 26, the United States has declared a public health emergency, and suspect or confirmed cases are being reported from many parts of the world. If a pandemic happens, it could be very serious for human health and the global economy (which definitely does not need any more bad news right now).

Q: What are "swine flu" and "bird flu"?

A: Flu is a disease caused by the influenza virus. Humans, pigs, birds, and other animals all can be infected by influenza viruses. Typically, influenza viruses can infect only one species, so the influenza viruses of humans are different from those of pigs and birds. However, sometimes a virus can infect more than one species. For example, pigs sometimes can be infected not only with pig influenza viruses, but also with human and bird influenza viruses. Then these viruses can sidle up to one another and swap genes, creating new viruses that have a mix of genes—from human, pig, and bird viruses. That is what has happened with this new swine flu virus.

Sometimes this swapping of genes allows a virus that was originally able to infect only pigs or only birds to also infect humans. When that happens, we refer to the illness as "swine flu" or "bird flu." This current virus could actually be called "swine/bird flu," since it has some genes from pig flu viruses and other genes from bird flu viruses. However, for simplicity sake, it is just being referred to as "swine flu."

Q: Are swine flu or bird flu viruses dangerous?

A: Most viruses that cause swine flu or bird flu are very hard to pass from one human to another: they don't cause epidemics. Sometimes, however, further changes in genes create a virus that can spread rapidly among humans, and can produce a more severe illness. One reason this illness is more severe is that the virus is so new. The regular flu that comes each year is caused by a regular human influenza virus that often has similarities to the viruses that have caused the flu in years past, so people have some degree of immunity to the latest virus. The unusual swine flu or bird flu viruses that develop the ability for person-to-person spread are so different that people have little or no immunity to them. That is what some experts worry may be happening with swine flu.

Q: How bad can a global pandemic be?

A: 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—more than have been killed by AIDS in three decades. The world economy went into a deep recession. The average length of life dropped for 10 years. In other words, global pandemics can be a really big deal. On the other hand, other pandemics have been considerably less serious than the 1918 to1919 influenza pandemic.

Q: Can this new swine flu virus be easily transmitted from person to person?

A: Unfortunately, the new swine flu virus can be transmitted between humans. It is not clear yet how easily it is transmitted, nor how it is transmitted. Almost surely it is transmitted by sneezing and coughing, and by skin-to-skin contact (like shaking hands or kissing) with an infected person.

Q: How sick do people get from this virus?

A: Most people infected with the virus have recovered from the illness. In fact, all of the people in the U.S. have recovered.

However, in Mexico, some people have kept getting sicker, and eventually died. The regular flu viruses that come each winter can occasionally cause severe illness and death. Most often, this happens in very young children or frail elderly people. What worries some experts is that many of the deaths in Mexico have been in young, healthy adults. In past pandemics, like the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, it was also young, healthy people who were most likely to die. Experts are puzzled as to why the infection currently appears to be worse in Mexico than in the U.S.

Q: Are there treatments?

A: As of now, the new virus is killed by two antiviral medicines—oseltamivir and zanamivir. Based on experience with other flu viruses, treatment would be most effective if given within 2 days of the onset of symptoms. As long as this current swine flu virus is infecting people, it is likely that health authorities will recommend that people with more severe illness take these medicines.

On the other hand, there is no proven benefit from using the medicines before symptoms develop, and there is proven harm: unnecessary widespread use of these drugs could produce drug-resistant viruses.

There is no vaccine yet for the new virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expressed doubt that this year's regular flu vaccine will offer protection.

Q: How do I know if I've caught swine flu?

A: The initial symptoms of this flu virus are like those of the regular, annual flu viruses: fever, muscle aches, runny nose, and sore throat. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may be more common with this swine flu than with the regular flu. If this epidemic hits your community and you develop flu-like symptoms, it is likely your doctor will take samples from your throat or material you cough up and send them to the state public health laboratory for testing.

Q: How do I protect myself?

A: To protect yourself from catching swine flu, take the same steps you would to prevent getting any cold or flu:

  • Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand cleaners frequently.

  • When you greet people, don't shake hands or exchange kisses.

  • Avoid contact with people with flu symptoms.

And to protect others, if you develop sneezing and coughing, be sure to use tissues to wipe your nose and cover your mouth, and to throw the tissues in the trash or toilet bowl.

Q: How long are people contagious?

A: Adults should be considered contagious until at least 7 days after the start of symptoms; with children, it may be 10 to 14 days.

Q: Can you get swine flu from eating pork?

A: Absolutely not. But, as you probably know, you need to cook pork thoroughly to avoid getting other illnesses that can be spread by undercooked meat.

Q: Will there be unusual restrictions on our lives if there is a global pandemic?

A: If there is a global pandemic, for some period of time, governments may well restrict travel (indeed, some governments already have). Governments also may close schools and public places, require as many people as possible to work from home, tell any people who develop symptoms to isolate themselves at home, and tell people to seek medical attention immediately if more serious symptoms develop. What are those symptoms?

For adults, teens, and kids age 3 to 12, the most worrisome symptoms are:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Persistent vomiting

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness

For children younger than 2, the most worrisome symptoms are:

  • Very rapid breathing

  • Not interacting normally, not eating or drinking normally, being unusually irritable, or appearing unusually sleepy

  • High fever and rash

  • A bluish color of the lips and skin

To purchase the full Special Health Report on swine flu from Harvard Health Publications, click here.

Copyright © 2009 by Harvard University.  All rights reserved

Are you worried about swine flu? See where cases have been spotted by clicking here.

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YMWONG22 4/24/2021
Thank you Report
Best defense is a flu shot Report
I have H1N1 right now. I've had it for three weeks. It looks to be getting better and then you go right back down to where you were. My doctors office got the vaccine and were calling their patients like me with chronic illnesses to come in and get the shots. Then we got called back saying that they had been instructed to only give the vaccine to their Medicaid patients. That stinks! Report
This is an old blog. People have died from the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. I have a feeling that this pandemic will spread even faster by this Fall, when kids return to school and people return to work in full force. Worrying about it will not make things better. Rather, be prepared and we won't have to be afraid. Report
Something is seriously wrong with this year. First the financial crisis, now its this flu thing... This year really sucks! Report
This is something I am not worried about but with a young child I do want to be informed. I am glad this article gave a good overview of the virus and what to watch for. I get so tired of the hype the media portrays. Report
With all the hype and fear that abounds, thank you for posting reliable information from a reliable source. Report
I really am not concerned. With the income I have, I don't have enough money to purchase meat the majority of the time so I eat more beans, legumes, lentils and such to get my protein. I'm not very concerned because I stay home a lot as well. Report
The government here in Canada is no longer calling this the "swine flu" as this has lead to a lot of misunderstanding and the needless slaughter of pigs in some countries, It is now being referred to as the "N1H1 influenza virus". Report
Very Informative. Answered a lot of questions for me. Report
This was a really good article. I definitely have a better understanding of everything. I am not too worried about it, though. I was in Mexico and arrived home shortly after the flu hit the news. My fiance and I are both fine. My parents are in Mexico (Cabo) and have been for almost 6 months now. They said that there hasn't been anything where they are. Hopefully the borders will stay open. They drive down and have to drive through the U.S. to get home to Canada. Although, I don't think my Dad would mind if he has to spend a bit longer in Mexico!! Report
This was a very good and informative article. Put things in an easy way to understand. Just be as careful as possible but don't over react. Report
Good article, wonderful advice.
I am keeping up on my daily supplements, and washing my hands often.
My grandmother's sister died from the 1918 flu. She was the last one in the family to come down with it. She had been taking care of everybody else so she was real run down when she finally got it. Only her father could go to the funeral because everyone else was still sick. They looked out the window and said their goodbyes that way. My grandmother always talked about Bridget with the beautiful curly black hair. She was 16 when she died. She was Irish. Report
Someone asked about keyboards and our mouse - we need to clean these - as always, however, there is no harm to being extra vigilant right now. Working in a school with many students who go in and out of the country we learn to be calm and very careful. This would be for our and their safety. The Harvard U article is good, but our school district was really giving us some great stuff this time......thankfully, in our area the ones who HAVE gotten this virus have not seemed to have such a bad time of it and that definetly is cause for hope! winwin1 Report
Three years ago when the bird flu was making its rounds one of my little students came up to me and said,"I'm sorry I missed school yesterday, I had the bird flu." That made me chuckle even though I consider any flu outbreak to be serious. We have to go about our daily lives taking necessary precautions. My son joked about some students at college wearing masks but they may be people with compromised immune systems who are required to protect themselves or they do it for peace of mind. The CDC sent out a list of behaviors we should be following in school to help prevent possible swine/bird flu transmission. I read the list and thought, "I already stress these almost daily."
1. wash hands frequently
2. eat healthy fruits and vegetables
3. stay away from sick people
4. don't come to school with a fever
5. get plenty of rest
These are things we should all be doing whether there is a flu outbreak or not. One of my students said his dad wasn't doing to let him go to a birthday party because the hosts of the party had just returned from Mexico. This is probably a wise thing because even if the swine/bird flu isn't as deadly in the U.S. it's better to err on the side of caution if you don't want your children to experience the flu.
There isn't much here in Canada yet. Report
TO MRSCBERG and RELUCTANTWRITER. Read the book named "The 4 Agreements". Report
I haven't seen any advice about public phones and computers... I imagine that you must now stay away or sanitize computer mice, keyboards and telephone handsets.

One post queried about airplane travel. I plan to leave on a trip soon to visit with my father who underwent heart surgery a few months ago, so I am naturally very worried about inadvertently sharing flu germs. I did change my plans so that I won't be taking my American flight that changed planes in Dallas. Now I will take a NWA non stop to my destination instead.

I too think that the media is contributing to our paranoia. However, we could all practice getting away from the news sources more often, right? Taking a walk (without headphones) and getting fresh air is still one of the more healthy activities. Report
I actually think that I was exposed to this when i returned from mexico at the beginning of April. I had flu like symptoms but this was not all over the news at that time. Two days later my boyfriend also came down with flu like symptoms also. Very sick for several days but we got over it. After that I do my usual precautions and clean every surface with alcohol, etc to eliminate any remaining germs.
I just recommend that everyone does not get alarmed and follow their normal routines. If you are sick stay at home like we did and see the doctor. Report
A big thank you for posting this info - a lot of people are scared and unsure of this and I think the more info everyone has, the better the situation will be. Report
No one should be called an idiot for sharing their opinion. I think the mods should delete that very rude and angry post. Report
AUHDGAUHD, you have an anger problem don't you! It helps if you talk it over with God, he will listen when no one else will. Report
I don't see what the big deal is at this point. It's just the flu. People get the flu all the time. between 250,000-500,000 people die worldwide from the flu each year and there isn't much concern for it at all. Everyone in the US (with the exception of the one infant who was brought here from mexico) has recovered from it either on their own or from taking tamiflu. Report
Thanks for the article....I sent it to folks here in Fort Worth where I live...home of current news folks from CNN, FOX and the fun.

Okay, lets get down and dirty....does the media go for ratings..yep...are May Sweeps around the we really know much about H1N1 A...nope. I understand the horrid border situation..pretty much..I live in a sanctuary city. Does a possible pandemic..."imminent" to get everyone's attention and take action care if you are documented or not...NOPE. The fact is....for those that want closed borders....not happening...for those that want to "round up" those who are undocumented....not happening.....we have laws just like Canada, Mexico itself, Australia, the individual European nations etc...we don't fund the enforcement of the laws and can't now.....this is all but a non issue.

Back to the problem at hand...does regular influenza kill...yes it does as do many other disease disputing that.

Is a pandemic something you want to hide your head in the sand way.....IF a second wave hits in the fall...and IF you understand a bit about virology, history, patterns, statistics healthy 20 to 40 years olds will get hit....followed by a wave of everyone else.....

Up next...lots of posters have put up the washing hands, isolate or contain your illness where stay home, etc....a lot of this is common sense but the media is reminding us as is my city.

Should you prepare...well unless you are living under a rock...yeah...duhhhh...should u you have time to prepare for this or any other disaster....looks like why not just do it.

Nuff said.

Thank you so much for posting this! I have been a bit worried (not too worried) simply because I don't every remember a health emergency being called! Report
Thank you for informing us about the "swine Flu". Report
Great information...Thank-you for giving a balanced view. Report
As for the fear, if you turn on the news you can't avoid it. The media is notorious for ensuring that we have something to fear in an effort to ensure their own job security. Take the swine flu coverage. You can't escape it. The fear is running rampant. But look deeper at the numbers and what's happening thus far. The number of cases thus far is not staggering. To my understanding an unfortunate 23 month old Mexican boy passed as a result of the swine flu. He came from Mexico and based upon anecdotal evidence suffered from other health issues as well. It's obviously a very sad thing and I'm not suggesting in any manner that the passing of this child be overlooked in any fashion. So, we have this white flag being raised causing us all to fear the unknown. Juxtapose this limitted outbreak thus far with cancer. It's a disease that is poised to take between 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 (yes that's millions) people each year. Considering that world war II took 40-50 million lives, this number is staggering. Each day, in each state, 46 families will learn that their child has some form of cancer. Weigh the numbers and where should our fear lie? Where should our action and focus be placed? Considering that by simply taking small measures of washing hands, not touching our mouths and noses, covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze we can protect ourselves from the flu, and on the other hand, we have no concept of how to protect our children from cancer, where should our fear lie? Pretty simple in my mind, yet what is the media focusing on? Once again, they have proven to be a complete and utter failure in so many fashions. Pathetic actually. Report
Thanks for the article, cause i have a 32 month old & a 6 & half year old. All the advice that i can get is appreciated so thank you very much for telling people about this. Report
Thank you so much for this informative, non-emotional article. The media is causing panic and fear in the public. Why do they do that? The normal winter flu claims more lives than the swine flu has. And the people in places other than Mexico are GETTING BETTER. They aren't dying.

Don't believe everything (anything?) you read in the media. They're only out to increase circulation. Follow the advice of the President and remain calm. Do as you'd do if you caught a cold - cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Wash your hands frequently. And stay home from work or school if you're sick. That's it folks. That's all there is to it. Report
Thank you for this information it has answered many of the questions I had been wondering about. It was very informative and the advice is much appreciated. Report
Thank you for the two that responded to me about 1969-70.
This was informative all the way around. As with most cases of flu or the cold, always wash. this just helps me explain more to my children and husband on how to cough-sneeze and clean. Thank you all. I am not worried, just concerned for all the towns that have sick families, my prayers go out to you.
Thank you SP for caring enough about us to post this. Report
Thank you for the update. There are so many different stories out there. It is sometimes hard to tell who to believe. Report
I appreciate this timely and informative blog!!! I'll be washing MY hands!!! Report
thank you for sharing :) Report
Thank you for posting this article. Report
I agree with EO1773. I am NOT racist at all, but I think our government should NOT allow people to travel to and from mexico at this time! I have a 10 month old baby and this does worry me. Report
I'm concerned but not worried about it. Any flu is dangerous. The more people panic the more they will demand to be treated for it whether they have it or not, which can lead to the virus getting stronger in the long run. All I or anyone can really do is try and keep there health as strong as possible. Eat healthy, sleep regularly, exercise to keep immune system as healthy as possible.
From CDC website:
# Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.
# Take everyday actions to stay healthy.
* Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
* Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective.
* Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
* Stay home if you get sick. CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
# Follow public health advice regarding school closures, avoiding crowds and other social distancing measures.
# Develop a family emergency plan as a precaution. This should include storing a supply of food, medicines, facemasks, alcohol-based hand rubs and other essential supplies.
# Call 1-800-CDC-INFO for more information. Report
I am living in Mexico right now, and there is no dangerous at the north of the country. The schools have closed due a federal protocol needed to be followed by the healthy regulations. However, in Chihuahua there is 0 cases of influenza at this point. I have seen a lot of ignorance and paranoia. It is good to have healthy habits all the time though. Report
I'm still kind of freaked out by this whole thing. The information in here is helpful, but I hate that our government seems to be giving everyone different answers. Mayor Bloomburg goes on television and says everyone is still safe to ride the subways, and than the very next second, Vice President Biden says the opposite. Who do I believe? Report
I am very much aware that not all latinos are mexican........only voice this because you never know which "mexicans expecially" have just arrived back or have relatives or friends who may have..........its simply the "dont know"....just a thought......and No I am not racist........just cautious. Report
So happy I read this. Very informative. I feel a little better :) Report
Information glady received. If we take care surely we can just go about our business and stop a knee jerk reaction. We seem to live in a society which is becoming scared of their own shadow. Report
EO1773, that sounds awfully racist. Unless your friend or employees/patrons of the restaurant just came back from Mexico (or you live in Mexico), there should not be a problem. This isn't some disease that affects only Mexicans; it just seems to have originated in Mexico. And not all Latino people are Mexican. Report
Thanks for the article -- I too have posted to share with others. I found it informative and not as threatening as some of the other news stories.
EO1773 . . . seriously? Please tell me you are joking. Report
The widespread panic is mostly the cause of the media. They've blown this COMPLETELY out of proportion . . . claiming "hundreds dead in Mexico!" . . . the current official number is seven. Seven. Less than the normal flu kills in a week. C'mon now folks. Yes, it's good to be cautious. Shouldn't we all be washing our hands and covering our coughs? That's something my parents taught me as a child.
So go on your vacations people. Bring along a thing of sanitizer. You'll almost surely be just fine. Live your lives. You're more likely to be hit by a car crossing the street. Does that mean you won't leave your house?

something to think about. Report