SWINE FLU – A REAL PANDEMIC OR A LOAD OF PORK PIES?

Anne Marie Reid discusses the aches, pains, sniffles, fevers, coughs and the unnatural cravings for chicken soup!

Every day the news is filled with yet more cases, more panic, more geeks in lab coats talking about fancy drugs and vaccines. Many of us are confused and perplexed; and even if we are displaying flu-like symptoms, we are unsure whether to phone up NHS 24 and potentially ‘cause hassle’ (as we are often inclined to think)!

UNDERSTANDING H1N1

Swine flu is an influenza virus normally specific to pigs, however in very rare cases some viruses can infect other species, and that includes us humans. Indeed, this particular strain of influenza A virus, subtyped H1N1, based on two distinct proteins present on the virus – haemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA)- contains sequences from human and bird as well as the original pig segments; allowing the species jump. The recent bird flu outbreak (avian influenza virus H5N1) did not cause as much panic due to the transmission from bird to human being very difficult, even though it has a much higher death rate. Swine flu, on the other hand, has evolved in such a way that it can be passed from human to human making it highly infectious. This is primarily why there are many concerns surrounding this outbreak. Due to it being able to transmit readily between humans there is worry that this could allow the virus to evolve into a more lethal form and be better adapted to exploit humans, though there have been no documented cases of this occurring. Further, even in a more benign state; this is a completely novel strain of virus thus there is no telling how it will affect humans. Seasonal influenza mainly affects the very young and the very old; in contrast, swine flu has affected people of all ages and some swine flu victims have also deteriorated into pneumonia.

PLAN OF ACTION

Okay, so what can we do if infected or to prevent infection? Well first things first, please take off that face mask you are wearing! Honestly, it will not protect you from infection, what will help is people adhering to basic hygiene and cleanliness. If you are going to sneeze or cough; remember the phrase from NHS 24. ‘Catch it, Bin it and Kill it’ and then wash your hands. Also, as in the case of seasonal influenza, simply shut the door on the rest of the world – you are not well and nobody wants your germs. The best thing that you can do is rest, relax, take some painkillers and maintain your fluids.

HELP IN A PILL BOX

What of these fancy anti-viral medications? Tamiflu (“oseltamivir” as it’s chemically known) is a highly effective inhibitor of the neuraminidase protein mentioned earlier; this prevents the release of new viral particles from hijacked cells within our body. In short, Tamiflu will alleviate symptoms associated with infection and hopefully prevent further spread and deterioration, but it will not however stop you from becoming infected. As for vaccines, influenza vaccines can be successful but still very much in the early days. They require chicken eggs and if a pandemic occurs, supply will not meet demand.

Swine flu is something that we should be aware of and not underestimate. However, we humans are hardy creatures and have survived a number of attacks and pandemics over the course of our time here on Earth so it’s not the first and it certainly won’t be the last. The best thing we can do is keep a cool head, lie low if we start to develop symptoms and call for extra help when required. And don’t give up the pork chops and bacon butties!

FOR YOUR INFOMATION

  • An estimated 250,000 people died from Spanish influenza in 1918-19 in the UK.
  • An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 die from seasonal flu globally every year.
  • Less than a hundered people in the UK have lost their life to swine flu.

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