What is the H1N1 virus? H1N1, also known as “swine flu,” is a new influenza virus causing illness in people. First detected in humans in April 2009, it was originally referred to as swine flu because it was normally spread between pigs and to people who have close contact with pigs. However, in the current outbreak, there is human-to-human transmission among people without pig contact.
How is it spread? It spreads the same way seasonal flu spreads — through coughing or sneezing by infected people. People can also become infected by touching surfaces with flu viruses on them, such as a table or doorknob, and then touching their nose or mouth.
What are the symptoms? Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache and fatigue. Some people also report diarrhea and vomiting. Infection can range from mild to severe.
Are people over 65 at higher risk? Unlike the seasonal flu, in which people older than 65 are among those at highest risk of serious complications, older adults do not appear to be at increased risk of the H1N1 virus or related complications. This might be because about one-third of adults older than 60 may have antibodies against the virus, though it is not yet known how much, if any, protection this provides against the virus.
What precautions can you take to prevent getting this flu? Here are some recommendations from the CDC:
Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Avoid using cloth handkerchiefs.
Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
Isolate persons with flu-like symptoms from others.
If you get sick, stay home from work, school or other activities and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
If you have flu-like symptoms, including high fever, cough, runny nose, muscle aches and nausea or vomiting, contact your personal physician for further instructions.
Who can get the vaccine? The H1N1 vaccine for 2009 is not yet available. When it does become available, which is expected this fall, the CDC has recommended that certain target groups receive priority in getting the vaccine: 1) pregnant women; 2) people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months; 3) healthcare and emergency medical services personnel; 4) people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old; and 5) people ages 25 to 64 who are at higher risk for the virus because of chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems.
For more information, visit the CDC website: www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/general_info.htm.
Dr. Sonja Rosen is a board-certified geriatrician with the UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica. Information: 310. 319.4371.