Science and the Swine Flu

You’ve likely heard news reports this week about the swine flu virus outbreak in Mexico. The swine flu or swine influenza produces regular outbreaks of respiratory disease in pigs and is caused by influenza type A viruses. Transmission of swine flu viruses between people has been reported in the past, but was limited to three people. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its pandemic alert to "phase 5", which means that people in at least two countries in one WHO region are spreading the disease [1]. This was done following an increase to "phase 4" several days ago because the virus was already widespread in differnet locations, with confirmations in Mexico, the United States, Spain and Scotland.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that the swine flu is contagious and is spreading from human to human [2], the WHO has indicated that most people infected with swine flu make a full recovery without the need for medical attention or antiviral drugs [3].

The Flu, Your Health and the Importance of Vaccination

The flu season runs from November to April, with most cases occurring between late December and early March. About 10% to 20% of people get the flu every winter [1]. In children, the odds are even worse, with up to 40% of children becoming clinically ill due to the influenza virus.

The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu vaccination. Hospitalization and death from flu complications pose real risks. Every year, on average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and approximately 36,000 people die from the flu [2].

Additionally, immunizing children against influenza is perhaps the best method to reduce the occurrence of the flu in the community. If children receive the flu shot but the rest of the family abstains, the influenza attack rate drops by 40%; if parents also get the flu shot, the influenza attack rate drops by 80% [3].