Experts Debunk Four Common Myths About Swine Flu
By JOSEPH BROWNSTEIN
ABC News Medical Unit
May 28, 2009-
Since it first caught public attention a little over a month ago, swine flu has captured numerous headlines, in addition to generating a lot of new, cautionary information for people to learn.
According to the World Health Organization, the virus has infected 13,398 people and caused 95 deaths. The WHO has stated that countries should begin preparing for a possible pandemic and this week vaccine manufacturers for the United States began receiving sample viruses from which to make a swine flu vaccine.
While swine flu has not yet had a major impact here, concerns remain over the effect the virus might have when flu season begins in earnest next fall.
It should be no surprise that a number of myths have emerged about how to avoid the virus and what all of this means.
Below we look at four common myths to help you understand what to expect from this strain of influenza virus.
1. Swine flu is more benign than seasonal flu.
According to the WHO, 95 people worldwide have died of confirmed cases of swine flu.
However, seasonal flu claimed an average of 36,000 lives annually in the 1990s, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
While many believe that swine flu is waning and these numbers may lead people to believe that swine flu is not as bad as seasonal flu, the situation can be deceiving.
Swine flu emerged at the end of the traditional flu season. With more people spending time outdoors and schools getting out for the summer, the virus is not nearly as likely to spread as it would be during the regular flu season, which begins in the fall and typically peaks in February.
As influenza expert Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University said in an interview with ABC News:
“All that early discussion about mildness should be modified as the information has evolved,” he said. “It’s not a harmless infection. We anticipate that whatever it does this summer, it’s likely to be a major player in the fall, and when something this new and unpredictable shows up, we are well-advised to do our best to prepare for it.”
Swine flu may not create a major hazard, similar to 1976, when many were worried but the virus had a relatively small impact. For that reason, the CDC will prepare a vaccine for swine flu but will monitor the virus before making the separate decision of whether to deploy it.
2. You can get swine flu from eating or handling pork.
To date, no evidence has been found to link eating or handling pork to contracting swine flu.
“By eating pork or handling pork products you won’t [contract] H1N1,” said Ed Hsu, an associate professor of health informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center and a contributor to ABC News’s OnCall+ Swine Flu site. “There is no scientific evidence or literature or any studies that suggest that one contracts H1N1 virus through eating pork or handling pork products.”
Additionally, USDA guidelines say to cook pork products to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to kill pathogens that live on raw pork. That temperature would kill the swine flu virus.
3. If you got a seasonal flu shot you are protected from swine flu.
While a strain of H1N1 virus is one of the three flu viruses contained in the annual flu vaccine, it does not match the strain of swine flu that has been making people sick, and so the vaccine will likely not provide full protection against the flu.
“It’s unclear at this time whether previous flu shots or having had the flu in the past will protect you from swine flu,” said Dr. Christopher Ohl, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
“Certainly, to have full protection is not going to be possible,” he said. “However, it may be that some partial protection may be provided by earlier shots or having had the flu.”
Seasonal flu vaccine development is well under way, but the first viruses from which manufacturers will make swine flu vaccines are only being delivered this week.
The CDC expects those to be made and tested at the end of June and then made so that they can be available in the fall, when flu season begins.
At that time, CDC officials will be tracking the swine flu to see if they need to deploy the swine flu vaccine.
So, to be fully protected against flu strains likely to be around next flu season, you will likely need more than one vaccination.
4. When the World Health Organization’s pandemic alert level rises, it means the swine flu is becoming deadlier.
The pandemic alert level is not a measure of swine flu’s deadliness. Rather, it’s a measure of how widespread the disease has become.
As the WHO notes, Level 5 — the current level for swine flu — indicates that the disease has spread from person to person and a pandemic is considered “imminent.”
At this point, the WHO advises countries to be prepared for a possible pandemic.
A pandemic is not considered to be under way unless the pandemic alert level is raised to Level 6.
As the WHO notes on its Web site, “While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”