SWINE FLU: Q&A The first death in Britain linked to swine flu comes after the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic.

Swine flu is a respiratory disease, caused by a strain of the influenza type A virus known as H1N1. The virus has made the jump from pigs to humans and is now passing easily from person to person. Swine flu is transmitted in the same way as other types of flu, through coughing, sneezing and touching contaminated surfaces.

What does a pandemic mean?

A disease is classed as a pandemic when it becomes a worldwide epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this means the virus is spreading in the community in two or more counties in one region of the world, and at least one country in another region of the world. A pandemic signifies phase 6 – the highest level of threat.

So far, the US has been struck by the most cases of swine flu, with more than 13,200 people affected. Mexico has also been badly affected, with more than 6,200 cases, followed by Canada, with about 3,000 cases. Experts are now watching countries like Australia, which has seen a leap in cases in recent days as the country enters its winter months.

What are the symptoms of swine flu?

At least 145 people have died so far from swine flu but the illness is mostly causing mild symptoms at present. Some health experts believe the virus could mutate and become more deadly as the UK moves into winter. Symptoms of swine flu include fever and flu-like symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, limb or joint aches and pains, and headaches. Some people have reported suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea.

What steps can I take to prevent catching swine flu?

Although it is impossible to eliminate the chances of catching swine flu, people can reduce their risk and help slow the spread of the virus. People should wash their hands regularly and catch coughs and sneezes in tissues which should then be promptly thrown away. The flu virus can linger on all types of surfaces for up to 24 hours and is easily transferred via the fingers to the mouth, nose or eyes. Alcohol-based gel or foam hand rubs can be very effective against viruses and bacteria. Anyone who is ill should stay at home until they feel better.

The NHS Swine Flu information line number is 0800 1513 513. Which groups of people are most at risk from swine flu? Seasonal winter flu usually strikes the elderly and very young but current indications are that swine flu is targeting people of working age. The suggestion is that older people may have some immunity to this type of flu from when they were younger. Groups at risk of complications include people on immunosuppressants, those with asthma or a chest disease and diabetics.

What treatments are available?

Flu viruses have the ability to change and mutate, which makes it difficult to predict exactly what will happen.

However, testing has shown that H1N1 can be treated with the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which comes in the form of an inhaler. These drugs are not a "cure" for swine flu but can help reduce symptoms and cut the length of time somebody is ill.

At present, the UK has enough Tamiflu to cover half of the population but orders are in place for 50 million doses – enough to cover 80 per cent of the population.

Pharmaceutical companies are working on a swine flu vaccine which will not be available until near the end of the year. No guidelines have yet been drawn up on who will get the vaccine first.

Swine flu prevention: tissues, catching germs, vaccination and masks Preventing the spread of germs is the single most effective way to slow the spread of diseases like swine flu until a vaccine is developed.

According to the NHS website , you can protect yourself and your family from swine flu by
• ensuring everyone washes their hands regularly with soap and water
• cleaning surfaces regularly

You can prevent a virus spreading to others by:
• always carrying tissues
• using tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze • binning the tissues as soon as possible
• washing your hands regularly

CATCH IT. BIN IT. KILL IT. is a simple way to remember this.

You can also prepare now and in the build-up to a pandemic by:
• Confirming a network of ‘flu friends’ – friends and relatives – who could help you if you fall ill. They could collect medicines and other supplies for you so you do not have to leave home and possibly spread the virus.
• Knowing your NHS number and those of other family members and keeping them in a safe place. You will be able to find your NHS Number on your medical card or other items such as prescribed medication, GP letter or hospital appointment card/letter.
• Having a stock of food and other supplies available at home that will last for two weeks, in case you and your family are ill.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) recommends that healthcare workers should wear a facemask if they come into close contact with a person with symptoms (within one metre) to reduce their risk of catching the virus from patients.

However, the HPA does not recommend that healthy people wear facemasks to go about their everyday business.

Why shouldn't the general public wear facemasks?
Because there’s no conclusive evidence that facemasks will protect healthy people in their day-to-day lives.

The virus is spread by picking up the virus from touching infected surfaces, or by someone coughing or sneezing at very close range – so unless you are standing close to someone with the virus, wearing a facemask will not make a difference.

There are concerns about the risks posed by not using facemasks correctly.

Facemasks must be changed regularly as they are less effective when dampened by a person’s breath. People may infect themselves if they touch the outer surface of their mask, or may infect others by not disposing of old masks safely.

Finally, wearing a facemask may encourage complacency. People need to focus on good hand hygiene, staying at home if they are feeling unwell, and covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze.


Is there a vaccine?

No. Influenza viruses change very quickly. For a vaccine to provide adequate protection it needs to be adapted to the particular strain in circulation.

Scientists are already working to develop a new vaccine for swine flu, but it could take up to six months to develop and manufacture enough supplies to meet what could be huge demand. The UK has agreements with manufacturers who will produce a vaccine when it becomes available.

It may take up to 12 months to have sufficient stockpiles to immunise 100% of the population.

Why does it take up to six months to produce a swine flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine production process is long and complicated. Traditional flu vaccine production relies on technology based on chicken eggs. This production technology is labour-intensive. To counter this, the government's plans include two manufacturers, only one egg-based, thus maximising chances of early development.

The flu vaccine production process is further complicated by the fact that flu virus strains continually evolve. Therefore, once a pandemic strain is identified and made available by the World Health Organization, it will take four to six months before a specific vaccine is available and evaluated for safety. However, it will be considerably longer before this vaccine can be manufactured in sufficient quantities for the entire population, given that international demand will be high.

Information from NHS Choices

The world is better prepared than ever before to deal with a pandemic thanks to five years of preparing to battle bird flu, World Health Organization officials
.... 28-04-2009


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