A Doctor’s Word: Virus as unpredictable as the weather

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My 10-year-old son tracks the weather map each day and enjoys the predictability (colder temperatures in the winter) with the unpredictability (50 percent chance of rain). Such is the case for the flu season this year. We have the usual seasonal flu, which peaks in January and February and then nearly goes away in the summer months. And then there is the unpredictability of the H1N1 or swine flu. 

The swine flu first occurred in Mexico this past spring and spread to North America. The World Health Organization soon declared it a pandemic. During June and July, it occurred at summer camps, which my children attended, yet luckily none became ill. But when schools began in the south in late August, a surge of cases began to occur. Hospitals had to set up tents in their parking lots as makeshift emergency rooms to triage sick children. The number of people coming into our clinics with flu-like illness was three to four times the usual for that time of year. Nearly all of the cases were suspected to be H1N1.
 
The H1N1 flu has been unpredictable. Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cases of flu-like illness have been decreasing in all parts of the nation.

From early findings, it appears to be very contagious and seems to transmit easily from person to person, unlike the bird flu, but much like the seasonal flu virus.

Additionally, from early findings, it does not appear to be highly virulent among the reported cases in the United States. The virus in most cases causes a mild illness, and most patients recover fully within a week or so, much like the seasonal flu virus and unlike the SARS virus. 

Gift of Health

It is unclear what will happen when the seasonal flu cases begin to occur in January and February. Will H1N1 cases come back or just go away altogether? Nobody knows, but my son is not worried. Three weeks ago, his school offered the nasal mist vaccine for H1N1. He and all his friends stood in line to be vaccinated. A few weeks earlier, he had his seasonal flu shot.
 
Studies show that the vaccine for H1N1 is 97 percent effective, and after 22 million doses there are no serious side effects. Also, the rates of flu vaccinations are lower among minority populations. Even though the cases of flu-like illness are decreasing, there is plenty of flu activity to make a non-vaccinated person very sick.

Even as the swine flu epidemic turns into a pandemic, I am reassured for a number of reasons.

First, the pandemic flu preparedness has been unprecedented, with the use of technology and local, state, national and international collaboration. I am on a daily afternoon conference call or webcast at cdc.gov with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and I get routine CDC updates on Twitter.
I tell my son, there is a 50 percent chance of rain – so taking an umbrella – the vaccine – is a good idea.

Dr. Manoj K. Jain is an infectious-disease specialist in Memphis and an adjunct assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. He frequently writes health columns for the Washington Post.

Gift of Health is supported by grants from The California Endowment – http://www.calendow.org/ – and California Community Foundation – http://www.calfund.org/.

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