Clinical trials are underway to test the first vaccine against H1N1 flu. So far, things look good, and health officials expect the first batches of vaccine for public distribution in mid-October. They expect some delays, with the full order of vaccine not delivered until December, and it’s possible that people will be lining up to get their dose.
Most of our bodies don’t know how to battle H1N1, which means it has the potential to make lots more people sick than a seasonal flu. “It sort of emerged out of a genetic shuffle,” explains Dennis Woo, M.D., former chair of the department of pediatrics at UCLA Medical Center, adding that H1N1 has components of four different viruses – one that infects birds, one that infects people and two that infect swine.
Another thing that makes H1N1 scary is the word “pandemic,” which the World Health Organization declared June 11. Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., who heads up the Flu Emergency Task Force at Tulane University, explains that there are three conditions necessary to create a pandemic.
- Antigen shift creates a virus that is new to humans.
- The virus infects humans and causes serious disease.
- The virus transmits from human to human (is contagious) and is sustained, meaning that it moves from place to place, country to country.
When H1N1 first appeared back in April, experts knew it had the potential to become pandemic, but didn’t know exactly how severe its impact might be. Thus far, while it has caused deaths, “it’s nowhere near what we feared might happen,” says Jim Sears, M.D., a pediatrician with the renowned Sears family and co-host of “The Doctors” television show.
Of course, like any influenza virus, H1N1 could change. In what direction? That’s anybody’s guess. It could stay fairly mild, or become more serious, even within a single season. “One year would be enough for it to cycle around,” says Woo.
What we call “the flu” – the fever, aches, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose – is basically our bodies trying to fight off the virus. “It’s kind of overkill,” says Sears. “The body’s immune system tends to overreact to the virus.”
In most cases, the result is a few days to two weeks of discomfort, inconvenience, and just feeling sick. But in some cases infection with flu virus paves the way for serious complications. These include ear and sinus infections, bronchitis (inflammation of the airways that carry air between the windpipe and the lungs), pneumonia (bacterial infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (acute inflammation of the brain). Of these, pneumonia is most common and most deadly.
But while seasonal flu and H1N1 cause basically the same symptoms, and the same types of complications, they tend to hit hardest in different groups. Seasonal flu tends to cause complications in the very young and the elderly. H1N1 tends to be most dangerous in young adults, especially those under age 25. The elderly are actually a bit less likely to get sick from H1N1. “Those over 65 probably have seen some type of flu virus like this in their lives,” says infectious disease specialist Pia Pannaraj, M.D., of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. So their bodies have some idea how to fight it off.
No matter which priority groups you do or don’t fall into, there is plenty you can do to keep from getting sick. And there’s a possibility H1N1 will stay mild. Check in tomorrow for news about that.