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The Healthy Student – Don’t panic when you hear ‘pandemic’

By Rachel SunterHealth Columnist

At the first mention of Swine Flu in Mexico, visions of zombie-like global infestation danced in my head. Will it come here? Will the forest be safe? Will I need a gun?
But after the 50th person joked, “Maybe you’ve got swine flu,” and I realized there was no apparent need for paranoia, I stopped paying attention. Shrugging my shoulders and exemplifying my best won’t-happen-to-me attitude worked well until the vaccine became available, and suddenly I had a choice to make.
On one hand, a cheerleader in Washington can only walk backwards after taking the vaccine. She is the unfortunate one in one million to get such side effects from the vaccine.
On the other hand, medical officials promise the vaccine is safe, and media outlets are coaxing the public with overwhelming statistics about how quickly this virus is spreading and how many people it’s killed. When pushed by panic, it’s hard to make choices.
I’m a firm believer that knowledge can reduce the fear of the unknown. So here’s a breakdown of Swine Flu, sans out-of-context numbers, without one in a million cases.

What is it?
H1N1 is a type of flu. In more medical terms, it is a strain, or subtype, of the influenza A virus. A virus is an ultramicroscopic (too small to be seen) agent that infects living things by dwelling and reproducing within cells. Viruses mainly infect bacteria, plants and animals.
Influenza is a virus that affects birds and mammals. It is divided into three subtypes: influenzas A, B and C. Each is categorized by its dominating chemical characteristics. All Influenza A viruses have an H and an N protein on their surface (hemaglutinin and neuramindase). These proteins vary in form due to the rapidly mutating nature of viruses. Swine Flu is classified as an Influenza A (H1N1) virus.
Earlier forms of this same flu have been seen before. In 1918 and 1919, a different H1N1 flu killed tens of millions of people worldwide, making the Spanish Flu the most lethal pandemic in recent history. The term ‘pandemic’ refers to both the geographical size and number of people affected by a particular affliction. An illness is deemed to be an ‘epidemic’ when it affects a large number of people at the same time in a specific region. When this region is particularly widespread or seen in regions around the world, the outbreak is considered to be a pandemic.
When the World Health Organization stated in June that H1N1 is a phase six pandemic, this was due more to its widespread nature than to the severity of its cases.

Where did H1N1 come from?
Thankfully, today’s H1N1 virus has not shown the same lethal potency as its earlier relatives. Scientists believe this virus contains strains of up to five pre-existing flu viruses, combining traits from bird flues, pig flues and human flues. Although originally rumoured to be the pig virus from Mexico, scientists now believe it is more likely the H1N1 flu came from pigs raised in Asia. They think it came to North America with an infected person.

How does it spread?
The H1N1 flu spreads the same way other flu viruses spread: through the bodily fluids of mucus and saliva. Coughing and sneezing project the virus into the air, and if the particles reach another human’s nose or mouth, either directly or by hand, this person is prone to infection as well. According to germ theory, hand washing should help prevent spread of this flu.

What are the signs and symptoms?
Influenza viruses give humans headaches, fever, chills, coughs, congestion, sore throat, body aches and fatigue. For some, diarrhea and vomiting may also occur.
I recently spoke to a girl in Halifax who had H1N1 a few weeks ago. She said her skin was sore and sensitive, and she had a deep, phlegmy cough, but that it wasn’t much different from flues she has had before.
The symptoms vary from case to case, sometimes according to a person’s history of health.

Why is H1N1 in the news?
Fatalities from this flu take a tiny notch out of the deaths caused by world hunger, cancer and even the seasonal flu. From a journalistic standpoint: it’s scary because it can kill you, and it’s new.

Though increased understanding does not always reduce fear – understanding torture, for example, may sky-rocket fear into total terror – I’ve found that breaking H1N1 down to the virus it is, and all that that entails, has made it a lot less scary.

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