Every year thousands of people, primarily the elderly, die from the seasonal influenza. But this year, the world has to worry about pandemic influenza as well, the new H1N1 swine flu virus. What are we doing to prepare for the approaching double barrel flu season?
What Is Seasonal Flu?
Seasonal flu is caused by influenza viruses that have been interacting with humans for many generations. The immune system of most people has been exposed to the influenza virus at some time in their lives. Having already been exposed to the seasonal flu, in some form, the body is able to recognize, and can mount a quick immune response when it encounters the seasonal flu again.
Every year, these viruses change a little bit, so we need a new seasonal flu vaccine that takes into account, and protects us from, new characteristics of the altered seasonal flu viruses. The best way to avoid getting sick with the flu, is to get a flu vaccine annually, and practice good hygiene, washing your hands at regular intervals.
How is H1N1 Different than the Seasonal Flu?
The new H1N1 swine flu virus emerged in the spring of 2009. It is a novel virus, meaning that it’s an infectious agent that humans have never been infected with. The virus that gave rise to this new H1N1 only infected animals previously. Then the virus genetically changed in a way that enabled it to go from infecting only animals to infect humans as well.
Novel viruses are dangerous because the human immune system has no previous experience battling them. Although the seasonal flu is most threatening to those with weak immune systems, such as the very young and old, the novel H1N1 virus appears to be a threat to healthy, young adults. Although the populations most affected differ, the symptoms of seasonal and novel H1N1 are very similar, and can only be distinguished through the use of a flu test.
Why Is this New H1N1 Virus So Dangerous?
When people get sick with a new infectious agent, like H1N1, it takes about two weeks for the human immune system to begin battling the microbe, and during that two weeks, if it is an especially virulent, dangerous microbe, severe illness or death can result before the immune system is able to fully respond.
What Is Being Done to Prepare for the Fall Flu Season?
The CDC obtained samples of the new H1N1 swine flu virus in April 2009, shortly after it was discovered. The government then began to culture and grow the virus, so that it could be distributed to flu vaccine manufacturers. A vaccine against the new H1N1 virus is currently in clinical trials, and the National Institutes of Health are preparing to have the vaccine ready in October.
Who Should Get the H1N1 Vaccine?
In late July 2009, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met to discuss who should receive the new H1N1 vaccine. They came up with the following recommendations for the populations that should be vaccinated:
- Pregnant women.
- Household contacts and caregivers for children younger than 6 months of age.
- Healthcare and emergency medical services personnel.
- All people from 6 months through 24 years of age.
- Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.
Will the Vaccine Treat Those Who Become Sick With H1N1?
Vaccines are used to prevent, not treat, the illness. The government is also working to ensure that there is enough antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, being manufactured and stockpiled to meet potential need for flu treatment.
Will the New Swine Flu Vaccine Replace the Seasonal Flu Vaccine?
The seasonal flu and the new H1N1 are different viruses, and there will be a separate vaccine for each. So seasonal flu vaccination will proceed as normal, and be recommended for the usual populations, which typically include:
- Children aged 6 months through 19.
- Pregnant women
- People 50 years of age and older
- People with certain chronic medical conditions
- People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.
How Do I Prepare for the Fall Flu Season?
The best thing to do to prepare for the upcoming flu season, is to speak with your doctor, and keep an eye on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) website, for flu vaccine recommendations.
There is an area of the CDC’s website with information on the H1N1 virus and vaccine and another section with recommendations relating to the seasonal flu. The website of the World Health Organization also provides a wealth of information on seasonal and novel H1N1 influenza virus and the Pandemic Alert Phases.