All About Swine Flu

What is Swine Flu? | Signs and Symptoms of Swine Flu | How Swine Flu Spreads
Diagnosis and Treatment of Swine Flu | Prevention of Swine Flu | Is Pork Safe to Eat?

What is Swine Flu?

Definition of Swine Flu

Swine flu is caused by "Type A" influenza viruses. There are four main "Type A" influenza virus subtypes that have been isolated in pigs: H1N1, H1N2, H3N2, and H3N1. This group of viruses causes outbreaks of influenza among pigs on a regular basis. The number of pigs that become ill is often quite high, but the death rate is low. The viruses may circulate among swine year round, but like human influenza outbreaks, the winter months seem to be the peak time of year that outbreaks occur in pigs.

Swine flu viruses, like all other influenza viruses, change constantly. This mutation can occur when pigs are infected by avian and human influenza viruses as well as other swine influenza viruses; therefore, different variations of swine flu viruses have emerged periodically.

Typically, elderly people, young children, and people with weakened immune systems are the segments of the population that are most affected by regular influenza every year, and it is among these groups that most of the deaths from regular influenza occur. Swine flu is different in that many of the human victims are often in their 20s, 30s, or 40s and were otherwise healthy before contracting the disease.

History of Swine Flu

Swine flu usually does not infect humans on an annual basis, but isolated cases do occur. A swine flu outbreak in 1976 at Fort Dix, New Jersey resulted in more than two hundred cases. Several people became seriously ill and one person died; however, the nationwide epidemic that was expected to occur never happened.

After the 1976 outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported about one case every one or two years in the United States. Between 2005 and January 2009, twelve human cases of swine flu were detected in the United States, but no deaths occurred. And, beginning in late March 2009, several cases of human infection with swine influenza A (H1N1) viruses were reported in Southern California and near San Antonio, Texas. Not long after this, several other states reported cases of swine flu in humans. A large number of cases were reported in Mexico, and isolated cases were reported in several other countries.

What makes the 2009 outbreak unique is that the virus seems to spread easily among people, which is a characteristic that has not been generally observed with swine flu in the past. In addition, the current strain of influenza—a combination of pig, bird, and human viruses—is a virus for which people may have a very limited natural immunity.

Because of the high volume media coverage devoted to the 2009 swine flu outbreak, it may be a natural reaction among people to be alarmed or even become panicked, but it is important to keep the events in perspective. According to the CDC, in the United States alone, an average of 36,000 people die every year because of seasonal flu related illness.

The Centers for Disease Control along with local and state health agencies are working together to investigate the current outbreak. An updated case count of confirmed swine flu infections in the United States can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/investigation.htm.

Signs and Symptoms of Swine Flu

The symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of regular human flu. Like common seasonal flu, the severity of the illness can vary from mild in some people to severe in others, and also like seasonal influenza, swine flu may cause underlying chronic medical conditions to become worse.

Common Symptoms of Swine Flu

  • A fever of more than 100ºF

  • Chills

  • Coughing and sneezing

  • Sore throat

  • Joint and body aches

  • Severe headache

  • Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting associated with swine flu.

Emergency Symptoms of Swine Flu

It is important to seek prompt emergency medical treatment if you are ill and experience any of the following emergency signs and symptoms.

Emergency Symptoms in Children

  • Rapid breathing or labored breathing

  • Bluish skin color

  • Not drinking enough fluids

  • Not interacting with others

  • Unable to wake up

  • A child that is so irritable that he or she doesn't want to be held

  • Flu-like symptoms begin to improve but then return with a fever and a worse cough

  • Fever with a rash

Emergency Symptoms in Adults

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen

  • Profound dizziness

  • Confusion

  • Severe or persistent vomiting

How Swine Flu Spreads

The swine flu virus can be transmitted among humans through the following methods.

  • Through direct human contact.

  • Being exposed to droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person.

  • Touching something that is contaminated with the flu virus and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Note: Some viruses can live two hours or longer on surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, and desks.

People who are infected with the swine flu virus may be able to infect other people beginning one day before developing symptoms and up to seven days or longer after they become sick, which means that a person can infect others before he or she is aware of their own illness. It is possible that young children might remain contagious for much longer periods than older children and adults.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Swine Flu

Diagnosis of swine flu is determined by examining a respiratory specimen from an infected person. The specimen should be collected within the first four or five days from the onset of the illness. This is the period of time when an infected person is most likely shedding the virus. Some people, children especially, may shed the virus for longer periods, perhaps ten days or longer. When a respiratory sample is collected, the specimen must be sent to the CDC laboratory for identification as the swine influenza type A virus.

If you become ill, it is important to avoid contact with people as much as possible, which means that you should not go to work or school, since you may infect others with the virus. Try to use a tissue to cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, as this will limit the spread of germs, but make sure to discard the tissue afterward; then make sure to wash your hands.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four to six months might be required to produce the first batch of vaccine after the onset of an outbreak; however, there are currently other anti-flu drugs available that do help once someone becomes sick. Four different antiviral drugs, amantadine, rimantadine, oseltamivir and zanamivir, are available now and are licensed for use in the United States for the treatment of influenza. The most recent swine influenza viruses isolated from humans are resistant to amantadine and rimantadine; therefore, at this time, the CDC recommends the use of oseltamivir or zanamivir for the treatment of swine influenza. These drugs help to prevent the virus from reproducing in your body. If you become ill, the drugs can aid in making the illness less severe and may prevent you from contracting serious complications related to influenza.

Prevention of Swine Flu

Frequent hand washing helps to reduce the possibility of becoming infected after touching common surfaces; in fact, hand washing is one of the best preventative measures for guarding against the possibility of contracting the flu. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also work very well if you do not have access to soap and water, but make sure to coat all surfaces of your hands by rubbing the sanitizing solution thoroughly over the skin. Other steps to prevent illness include the following:

  • Stay in good general health

  • Get plenty of sleep

  • Be physically active

  • Manage your stress

  • Drink plenty of fluids

  • Eat nutritious food

  • Follow all recommendations for proper food handling and preparation to help prevent foodborne illness.

  • Be aware of surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu virus, and avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • If you touch surfaces that may have been exposed to the flu virus, (a table, desk, doorknob, drinking fountain, etc. that a sick person has touched) do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth until you have washed your hands thoroughly.

Is Pork Safe to Eat?

Absolutely. You cannot get swine influenza from consuming pork or pork products. If properly handled and prepared, pork is safe to eat. If you follow the USDA guidelines for safe handling and cooking of food, pork is no more risky to eat than any other type of meat. The CDC and the USDA remind people that cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F kills any bacteria or virus that may be present.

Because of the negative impact that the 2009 outbreak of swine flu is having on pork sales and consumption, there seems to be a consensus among farmers and pork producers, and, indeed, a large segment of the general population (who have nothing to do with pork production) that the name, swine flu, is an unfortunate choice of words for this type of influenza, since the 2009 strain actually contains genetic segments not only from pig viruses of North America, Europe, and Asia but also from human and bird viruses as well. Health officials have seen combinations of pig, bird, and human viruses before, but until the 2009 swine flu outbreak, they had never seen such an intercontinental combination of viruses, including more than one pig virus.

Misinformation has led to unnecessary fear among many people who wrongly equate pork consumption with swine flu, and this misinformation has even led to the needless destruction of thousands of pigs in various places throughout the world. Because of this misinformation, mostly associated with the name swine flu, the World Health Organization is no longer referring to the 2009 influenza outbreak as swine flu. As of April 30, 2009, WHO began referring to the new influenza as Influenza A(H1N1). See the WHO Website at http://www.who.int/en/ for more information. Other resources for current information on Influenza A(H1N1) can be found on the CDC Website at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/ or visit http://pork.org/.


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