Feeling confused these days about swine flu? Well, join the crowd – even the experts are adrift on a sea of uncertainty. That’s because influenza viruses are genetic shape-shifters, able to change almost overnight into new and more dangerous forms. That said, there’s a lot of good, solid information out there about the H1N1 virus.
It’s called swine flu because two of the virus’s 11 genes originated with pigs, which are subject to their own strains of flu worldwide. But the animal-to-man transfer (called zoonotic infection) is rare and happened long ago in H1N1’s genetic history. This flu is passed from person-to-person.
H1N1 is a descendant of the 1918 Spanish Influenza that killed an estimated 40-100 million people, and it appeared again in milder form as the 1957 Asian flu and 1968 Hong Kong flu. It is only distantly related to the strains of seasonal flu that come around every winter, and therefore immune to the normal autumn flu vaccines.
About 4000 Canadians die every year of seasonal flu, 90% of them 65 or older, and most with some pre-existing medical condition. H1N1, by contrast, tends to hit children under five and healthy adults 24-64, with the most frequent and severe illness in patients around 40. About 30% of people over 65 are believed to retain a measure of immunity from the 1957 and ’68 pandemics.
While fewer than 100 H1N1 patients have died in Canada since April, experience in Australia, which is now nearing the end of its flu season, suggests that number is about to rise significantly, particularly in Indian and Inuit communities, where poverty and overcrowding have already produced high rates of infection.
Make no mistake: an H1N1 pandemic (a word that denotes many cases over a wide area, but not severity) has begun, and to deny this can only increase the risk. The uncertainty now is whether the virus will mutate this fall into something much more virulent, an outcome scientists consider unlikely, given H1N1’s history of relative stability.
More probable is something called “antigenic drift,” a kind of genetic evasive action that the virus might take in response to the new vaccine being developed, rendering it ineffective. Even if that doesn’t happen, the H1N1 vaccine won’t be available until mid-November at the earliest, well into the flu season.
For now, prevention, not immunization, is the watchword. Wash your hands thoroughly soon as you come home from town or school. Wipe down kitchen and bathroom surfaces with detergent or alcohol. Avoid crowds and people sneezing or coughing.
Take at least 1000 IU of vitamin D a day. Lack of this sunshine vitamin may be the reason why flu is primarily a winter disease. And remember, most of those who contact the H1N1 virus never become ill, simply because their immune system is strong.
To keep it that way, make sure your diet is low in refined sugar and high in lean protein and whole foods. Get plenty of sleep, keep your stress level down with regular exercise, yoga or meditation and take vitamins A, B, C and E, and minerals zinc, calcium and magnesium.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2009.