As flu season begins, health authorities in Australia have warned people that the swine flu – also known as H1N1 – is returning to this country in a new, mutated form. People ages 95 and older may be safest from infection, though.
“We won’t know how much it has mutated until people begin to get sick, but fly viruses mutate all the time as they pass through people and animals”, said Dr Jeremy McAnulty, NSW Health director of health protection.
“Basically, the virus makes mistakes in its reproductive cycle that help it survive as part of its evolutionary process and evade our immune systems. We won’t know how well the flu vaccines will protect people from new strains of the two flus we expect this year – H1N1 and H3N2 – no flu vaccine is perfect. But we recommend people get vaccinated”, added the doctor.
The 2009 swine flu outbreak is thought to have been triggered at a Texan pig farm, spread to pigs in Mexico, subsequently infecting the pigs’ handlers. However, studies have since then showed that swine flu is not transmittable from animals to humans.
Dr McAnulty also said that medical research has established that H1N1 was related to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed up to 100 million people, which is the equivalent of three to five percent of the world’s population at that time.
“There have been four pandemics, or apparently brand new strains of flu in the last hundred years and three in the 20th century, in 1918, the 1950s, and the 1960s”, he said. “We’ve discovered that the H1 virus actually had a connection with the 1918 flu, so people who were around then and exposed to it have some resistance to H1. H1 affected more pregnant women and young people”, also said the doctor.
Swine flu led to the death of 186 Australians in 2009 and officially affected 37,000 individuals. The global death toll of 18,500 was revised last year by Lancet magazine as closer to 250,000. “The actual numbers are always much larger. Typically, 10 to 20 percent of the population go down with flu every year”, Dr McAnulty stated.
Swine flu symptoms include high fever, cough, headache, tiredness, with more serious cases developing diarrhea, pneumonia, encephalitis and, in rare cases, lung and heart failure.
Vaccines against swine flu are available in Australia for free for pregnant women, individuals over 65, Aboriginal people, and patients with serious underlying medical conditions.
As a preventive measure, Dr McAnulty recommends washing the hands after contact with others. This is an important means of keeping health this winter. “And not just a quick wash of the hands. We recommend singing Happy Birthday as you wash your hands. It’s about the right length of time for the process”.