What is swine flu?

Swine flu (short for swine influenza) is so called because it is a respiratory disease that normally only infects pigs. It is usually caused by a particular influenza virus known as swine influenza A (H1N1).

How is swine flu spread?

Humans who have been in contact with pigs, such as farmers, people visiting fairs, or others coming into close proximity of pigs, can on rare occasion be infected with the swine flu virus. Health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have determined that swine influenza A (H1N1) has somehow been changed so that it now can be passed from human to human.

The virus is spread through the air, by direct contact with a pig or human who is infected with the virus, or by indirect contact (e.g., by touching a surface that has been touched by someone with the virus). It is spread from person to person the same way regular seasonal influenza is spread: an infected person coughs or sneezes and the virus then enters someone else’s nose, eyes, or mouth. Some viruses can live for 2 hours or longer on surfaces such as tables and desks.

H1N1 flu virus (human swine flu) is not spread by eating properly cooked pork, heated through 71°C (160°F), or by blood transfusions. People who are infected with H1N1 flu virus may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to 7 or more days after becoming sick.

What are the symptoms of swine flu?

The symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of regular human flu. They include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and extreme fatigue. Some people may experience diarrhea and vomiting. Although most people have recovered on their own, some people with severe illness have gone on to develop pneumonia or respiratory failure, and a small number have died as a result of the infection.

Who is most likely to get swine flu?

The body can become immune to the effects of a virus if it is exposed to the virus and makes antibodies against it. Most of the population is at risk for getting swine flu because it is contagious and the majority have no natural immunity because they have not been exposed to the virus in the past.

The H1N1 flu virus can be more severe if it infects people whose immune systems are already weak, such as in the very young, seniors, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, heart, kidney or liver disease, and asthma.

How can I prevent infection with swine flu? Is there a vaccine?

There is a vaccine against H1N1 flu that is available to all Canadians who want to be vaccinated. Talk to your doctor or local public health office about how to get the H1N1 vaccine. The best way to prevent any type of flu virus infection is to wash your hands often with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based sanitizers are also effective. If you use alcohol gel, rub your hands until the gel is dry. Also keep all common surface areas such as doorknobs, light switches, and telephones clean and sanitized.

Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, because that is how germs are spread. Avoid close contact with people who have flu symptoms. If you cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue and throw the tissue in the trash after you have used it.  If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your arm, not your hands. In addition, eat a healthy well-balanced diet to keep your immune system strong. But if you end up feeling sick, just stay home.

What should I do if I get flu symptoms? Are there medications available for treatment?

If you live in an area where swine flu cases have been identified or you have recently visited such an area, you should contact your health care provider if you develop symptoms of the flu. Let your doctor know that you were recently in such an area. Call your doctor's office before coming in so they can prepare for your visit. Your doctor may test you for influenza and/or may provide treatment.

Medications called antivirals can be used to treat swine flu. Oseltamivir and zanamivir are two antivirals that have been shown to be effective for the treatment and prevention of infection with swine flu viruses. They are most effective if taken within 48 hours after developing symptoms.

Tom Smiley