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Is H1N1 Flu Dangerous?

written by: Robyn Broyles • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 5/24/2011

Swine flu is the common name for a variety of influenza called H1N1. An April 2009 outbreak in Mexico caused worldwide concern and even panic, as fears mounted that swine flu may turn into a deadly pandemic. But is swine flu really that dangerous?

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    The Potential Dangers of H1N1 Flu

    So-called "swine flu," the common name for 2009 A/H1N1 influenza originating from pigs, is an emerging pandemic that has spread via travelers to all corners of the globe, with cases reported in countries from Canada to Israel to New Zealand. As of June 29, 2009, 311 deaths had been confirmed worldwide, mostly in North America. How is the swine flu is transmitted?

    The current outbreak of H1N1 virus can be transmitted from person to person. Unlike most flu outbreaks, it is especially dangerous for young, healthy adults. These facts have led many around the world to fear that swine flu is dangerous to them.

    The rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic caused the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to implement its emergency response. This action does not mean that swine flu is an emergency — only that the CDC is being prudent about the possibility of the emergency. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set its pandemic alert to 6, which means that sustained person-to-person transmission has been observed in multiple WHO regions. Find out what these responses mean for you.

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    Was Swine Flu Dangerous Before?

    Swine flu has affected humans in the past. The CDC reports 12 cases in the U.S. from December 2005 to February 2009.

    In 1988, a healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman in Wisconsin caught type A H1N1 swine flu and died after visiting a county fair where many of the pigs were sick. However, this was an isolated incident, and the disease did not spread from person to person.

    In 1976, an outbreak occurred among previously healthy new recruits at Fort Dix in New Jersey. 200 soldiers were sickened and one died. Though this outbreak did spread from person to person, it spontaneously stopped spreading for reasons that are still unknown. The Fort Dix strain was named A/New Jersey/76 (Hsw1N1).

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    The 2009 swine flu strain, however, is unique. It has genetic components from human, avian, and swine flu. While all strains of flu are unpredictable because of the fast evolution of the influenza virus, health authorities are especially cautious about 2009 swine flu.

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    Is Swine Flu Dangerous Now?

    Read the timeline of the 2009 H1N1 epidemic.

    How swine flu is transmitted from person to person is the same way as the more familiar seasonal flu that appears every fall. Frequent hand-washing and avoiding sick people are the best preventions. Keep in mind that "regular" seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people each year. This fact may help keep swine flu in perspective.

    The overall mortality of the flu strain in the 2009 outbreak is low so far. The WHO considers the risk posed by this strain to be "moderate."

    If you are sick, it is extremely important to stay home from school and work. If you have swine flu, you could spread it; and if you don't have swine flu, you are more vulnerable to being infected if you are already sick.

    People most vulnerable to the H1N1 flu are the very young and very old and those with chronic diseases. If you think you are at special risk, check with your doctor about getting a pneumonicoccal vaccine. While it won't protect you from swine flu or any other virus, it can help prevent secondary bacterial pneumonia.

    A 2009 swine flu vaccine will not be available for at least several more months because influenza vaccine production and testing is time-consuming. Shots from previous years will probably not be effective.

    The flu virus is not a food-borne illness and it cannot be transmitted from cooked meat to humans. While you should always follow regular food-safety guidelines when preparing pork and other foods, you cannot catch swine flu from pork.

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