The difference between the swine flu outbreaks in Mexico versus the United States is dramatic — to say the least. There have been more than 150 probable deaths in that country with reports of more than 2,500 who have fallen ill. Here in the U.S. there has been one death with confirmed cases reaching around the 100 mark. These numbers got me thinking about a few things. So I called up my colleague Dr. Peter Gross, who’s one of the leading flu experts in the nation.
Q: Dr. Manny: The reason that this flu pandemic seems to be less deadly than what we saw in Mexico is perhaps that the American population has some passive immunity to some portion of this new virus — and that indeed — one of the unintended benefits of the regular flu vaccine we have been administering over decades is that it’s created some protection — even from this latest virus that has popped up. Is there any truth to this?
A: Dr. Gross: In the flu vaccine — for more than the past 30 years — we’ve had an H1N1 strain in the standard flu vaccine that everyone gets… at least since 1976 when we had the last swine flu scare. So the theory goes that if you’ve had a vaccine that has a N1 in it... when you encounter a slightly different H1 (which is what the swine flu is) that you will be protected from severe illness and death, but not from getting a cold or a bad cold from that flu strain.
The other thing is we haven’t seen reports of a lot of older people getting H1N1 influenza A… so they must certainly be immune. An educated guess here would be that these older people may not be coming down with this new strain because most of them – particularly if they got the standard vaccine — would have some degree of immunity.
So the big question to ask here is: Did most of the people in the U.S. that had pretty mild cases of swine flu — did they get vaccinated with the regular influenza shot in the past couple years?
And the same goes for the victims in Mexico.
Did the people who fell ill or die get the standard flu vaccine?
These are very good indicators about the effectiveness of our standard influenza vaccine. And of course this all points to the importance of getting immunized every year.
Q: Manny: What lessons will we learn from this latest outbreak?
A: Dr. Gross: Well, one of the lessons would be to get immunized every year.The other one is that influenza is very complicated and always surprises. So you really need to look at the whole picture and look at past epidemics and pandemics before you draw too many conclusions.
For example, we had pandemics in 1918 when we had no anti-viral drugs and there were two more pandemics in 1957 and 1968. The mortality of the later two were much less than in 1918 because we had vaccinations.
And, now we have two excellent drugs that have been licensed that are effective against the current H1N1 flu strain and those are Tamiful and Relenza. Will they cure it? Yes they will. If you get exposed and infected and take one of the drugs within 48 hours of becoming ill – it will dramatically reduce the severity of your illness and basically get rid of the virus.
Q: Dr. Manny: When we hear the word ‘pandemic’ – people often immediately think of death. Does this concern you?
A: Dr. Gross: Yes, that is one of the concerns I have about what’s going out to the media. The definition of pandemic does NOT mean the word death. But it’s implied when people say pandemic. Remember, so far in the U.S. the current situation is not really worse than the usual influenza epidemics we have. Now, that may change but that’s the way it is now.
Q: Dr. Manny: A lot of people have been asking me this question – so let’s clear it up once and for all. Is it safe to eat pork?
A: Dr. Gross: We know swine flu is definitely NOT transmitted by eating pork products. But you still have to cook your pork products well because there are other infectious agents that can make you sick. The bottom-line: You cannot get the swine flu from eating pork.
(Note: The USDA says that pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees)
Q: Dr. Manny: So what do you say to all those people out there who are avoiding eating pork?
A: Dr. Gross: It’s ridiculous. Eating pork is completely safe. The virus starts from the live animal to a human and then it goes to human to human, which is what is happening right now. It’s not from eating pork!
(Note: We called a few of the country's major supermarket chains to ask if they’ve seen a reduction in customers buying pork products due to the swine flu – and on average — business has remained steady.
“The only result that we’ve seen from this story is that customers might ask about pork or imports from Mexico. But we have not seen any affect on business,” Libba Letton, Whole Foods press officer told FOXNews.com.
“Here in the Southeast there has been NO decline in pork sales. Sales are steady, there’s been absolutely no decrease,” Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets, Inc. told FOX. “Everything in the pork category is steady."
“We’re not seeing any significant shift in pork sales," said Christy Phillips-Brown, corporate spokesperson, Food Lion, LLC. "We are reminding our customers that it is safe to eat pork and also to follow safe meat handling and cooking processes. Swine flu is not a food safety issue.")
Q: Dr. Manny: What is the outlook?
A: Dr. Gross: Well, I think it’s going to spread. It’s already in several states and countries. Also, very often after an influenza epidemic there is what we call a “herald wave” (The finding that the strains of influenza virus present in a population at the end of one season's epidemic are the same strains responsible for the next season's influenza syndromes) and that “herald wave” predicts what will happen in the next winter influenza season. Because of that, there are questions whether they should put this new strain in next season’s influenza vaccine — and because it sort-of fits with what’s known about “herald waves” – in my opinion it should be in the vaccine.
Now remember, the vaccine for next year has already been determined. That was done in January and February. But because of this new strain, they may need to do some fine-tuning and include this new strain in for the coming year. Or, you may have to make a monovalent vaccine, which would mean it just has one strain. If that happens, people would have to get the regular flu vaccine as well as a second shot containing this latest strain of flu.
FOXNews.com's Karlie Pouliot contributed to this report.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.