Is the world in the grip of its first influenza pandemic in forty years? It definitely seems so!
The current swine flu or pig flu disaster traces its origin to the badly- hit State of Mexico, where a hundred and fifty people have been declared dead so far. The government has closed schools and has cancelled all public events.
There have been 20 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States alone prompting the federal health officials to declare a state of public emergency. Effective measures are being taken to dispense with some of the country's emergency stock of anti-virals. None of the cases have been fatal thus far.
There have been reports of new, unconfirmed cases from France, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Spain. Canada has confirmed a few cases of swine flu.
The WHO refers to the present situation as a "public-health emergency of international concern,"; nevertheless the emergence of a new strain of flu virus -- H1N1—in several countries world wide has prompted some to believe that it is only a matter of time before the WHO assigns the 'pandemic' status to the situation.
The Flu Virus
The influenza virus mutates constantly; in other words it is highly prone to change. Nevertheless our immune system is viable enough to guard us against the influenza virus.
Influenza should not be confused with Cold which also is caused by a virus. The term 'Influenza' comes from the Italian: influenza, meaning "influence" (Latin: influentia) as it easily infects one person to another by various contact methods.
From time to time, however, the flu virus inhabiting animals, exchanges its genes with other viruses and undergoes a transformation. This results in the emergence of a new strain of flu virus which is capable of spreading from one human to another because of the lack of natural or acquired immunity against it.
An example is the "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918, which wiped out an estimated 40 to 50 million people worldwide.
In case of a new pandemic the WHO has established six pandemic phases. The H5N1 avian flu virus - of the 'bird flu' fame- is not transmitted from one human to another. Hence it is at phase 3. If a new strain emerges which can be easily transmitted from one human to another, the WHO would then upgraded the status to phase 4 - an indication that we have a pandemic on hand.
Normally the pig flu or swine influenza virus as the name suggests is confined to that species and does not infect humans. However the H1N1 swine flu virus has been declared as a new virus by the CDC with the "sustained ability" to pass from one human to another, harboring the potential to cause community-level outbreaks. It comprises of genes from the human and birds and pigs.
Due to reports about the virus emerging from across the world, it appears that we could well be in the midst of a pandemic. Experts are waiting for more proof before making the declaration.
Swine Flu -Symptoms
The symptoms of swine flu are:-
• high fever,
• body ache / headache
• cough / sore throat,
• diarrhea / vomiting,
• fatigue / chills.
An infected person's cough is enough to infect a room full of people and is therefore highly contagious
Declaring a pandemic situation calls for actions to be taken after serious consideration. The socio- political ambience must be considered and is not something to be taken lightly. Panic among the public must also be avoided.
It comes as a huge relief that the world is more prepared now than at any other time before to deal with the flu pandemic.
• Most countries are in a state of preparedness due to the prior experience gained from dealing with the H5N1 avian flu virus.
• Several nations have even drafted pandemic preparation plans
• Many countries have stockpiled mammoth quantities of lifesaving antivirals to be used during a pandemic
• Tami flu (Oseltamivir) and Relenza are the antivirals that are effective against the flu and are recommended to be taken within 48 hours of getting the flu symptoms.
• Life saving technologies like artificial respirators are easily available.
In case of phase 4 the following steps may be implemented: -
• Following strict quarantine measures
• Covering infected areas with antiviral medications
• Old-fashioned infection control may be implemented
- Closing schools,
- Limiting public gatherings
- Restricting travel
But these measures are likely to have negative impact on an already doddering global economy.
• Globalization and cross country travel can further increase the risks of transmission
• Currently here are no vaccines against swine flu
• It could take several months before the pharmaceutical companies prepare full doses of the vaccine against the virus
• There could be an acute shortage for the vaccine and not everyone will have access to it
• Cross border restrictions due to the pandemic could cause "collateral damage" and disrupt world trade to an extent that there may be a shortage of even basic amenities such as medicines and coal, the latter being required for electricity.
Wait and Watch
The outcome from the swine flu is completely unpredictable, simply because there has not been one in years. Experts say that we are on the brink of a pandemic, with up to 30-40% of the population likely to become ill in the next six months. But panic especially in the face of knee-jerk reactions, such as closing cross-country or international borders, could be counterproductive.
This pandemic is not expected to be aggressive and the virus is not as potent as the bird flu virus. We are all expected to participate in the 'health watch' and contribute our mite towards the control of the spread of the disease. People, especially those living in high risk areas, can practice good hygienic measures such as washing hands, covering mouth and nose while sneezing and avoiding travel to flu- prone areas.
Pork can still be eaten and you will not get swine flu from eating pork. However ensure that it is properly stored and cooked.
We are still in the woods as far as swine flu goes, but a complete picture is likely to emerge soon. Meanwhile let us wait, watch and stay calm!
Dr. Reeja Tharu/L