Swine flu is spreading faster than ever — so much so that the World Health Organization has decided to stop tracking cases.
In the U.S., the H1N1 virus has sickened tens of thousands and closed summer camps at a time when there should be little or no flu activity.
Even as the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to raise awareness of this potentially deadly disease, which appears to be killing both sick and healthy individuals, the topic has virtually disappeared from the headlines.
“Complacency is a major concern,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director for National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.
“This virus is a new one, and on top of that, we really still don’t know how it’s going to behave,” Schuchat said during a media conference call Friday. “There are special efforts that have been undertaken by health agencies, but individuals also need to be ready, to be thinking ahead and have steps in place should a family member get sick or a workplace close down or a situation arise that requires working from home.”
Over the next six to 12 weeks, there are several concerns that national health officials are preparing for:
1. Figuring out how the virus will react and spread once students return to schools, especially inner city schools, which typically struggle with overcrowding issues.
2. Overseeing the completion of a vaccine and getting it to the individuals who need it most.
3. Determining how the virus will behave as it spreads and mutates.
School districts across the U.S. struggle every fall with outbreaks of typically non-flu respiratory viruses, which are easily spread through germs on surfaces and doorknobs, as well as passed from student to student through sneezing, coughing, and sharing drinks and food.
Seasonal influenza usually begins to spread through schools in the late fall and early winter, but this probably will not be the case with swine flu, which behaves differently than seasonal influenza – by oddly thriving in warm and humid conditions.
“This year we’re seeing the H1N1 virus circulating through summer camps and military units, so I’m expecting we may see an increase in cases once school starts, but we don’t definitely know that,” Schuchat said. “We are concerned that there will be challenges in the fall. It is the kind of thing we want to be ready for and not surprised by.”
Schuchat said national and state health officials are working closely together on updating their guidance for schools and similar institutions with regard to swine flu outbreaks.
“We still believe that the best place for kids is in schools, where they can be nourished receiving a healthy breakfast and lunch and learning,” she said. “But we also believe the best place for a sick kid is at home being cared for. So we’re working on putting strong plans in place on communication and preparedness on the local and state levels.”
Companies such as Baxter, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis are working to ready a swine flu vaccine for October. Earlier this week, concerns were raised that the U.S. may not receive all the vaccine it needs because it only manufactures about 20 percent of its own supply. The other 80 percent is produced in foreign countries, which will also need ample supplies of the vaccine.
But Schuchat downplayed those concerns, saying the U.S. has contracts in place with manufacturers around the world that guarantee it will receive adequate vaccine.
But, will the vaccine be effective?
In a typical year, the seasonal flu vaccine is about 70 to 90 percent effective, depending on how closely the vaccine matches the strains circulating and on the population the vaccine is used in. In other words, a vaccine is not going to be as effective in a person with a compromised immune system or someone who is considered at high risk for the virus.
Scientists typically spend months researching the strains of seasonal flu virus that are circulating the globe in order to pick out the three strains that it puts into the annual vaccine.
Because swine flu is new and mutating – for example, in Argentina the virus appears to have mutated to where it can now easily spread from humans to pigs – scientists have their work cut out for them when it comes to determining what strains of the H1N1 swine flu virus to include in the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, right now, we do not know how effective it will be in different populations,” Schuchat said. “We will be looking back at how well it worked, taking into account whether it worked as well as expected, better than expected or worse than expected. Unfortunately, that’s something we’re not able to do until after the fact.”
World and U.S. health officials have already determined that swine flu behaves differently than seasonal flu in a number of ways. First, it’s able to spread in hot and humid weather, which is not usually the case for the seasonal flu virus.
Second, the infection appears to be more severe in young people and less severe in the elderly than the typical seasonal flu. Schuchat said in some countries, elderly people, usually at high-risk for influenza, appear to be immune to swine flu – possibly because of the similarities between swine flu and the 1918 flu pandemic, which some of the world’s elderly survived and may be resistant to.
“We are particularly concerned about pregnant women; we’re seeing fatalities and life-threatening illnesses that have occurred in pregnant women in the Southern Hemisphere,” Schuchat said. “We are expecting pregnant women to get a recommendation to get the H1N1 vaccine to reduce the risk of complications from influenza. We know many pregnant women don’t like to take any drugs, but this is one instance where you need to be much more concerned about your health than the baby’s health.”
“We’re in a very active stage of preparing for the [coming months],” she continued. “We’re working with the private sector. We want individuals and families to be preparing. Influenza in general is unpredictable, and we don’t know what to expect in the weeks and months ahead.”