How dangerous is the swine flu?
Fear over the H1N1 flu strain has consumed public policy on the local, state and national levels, while reports of fatalities from the “swine flu” virus have sent the public into a frenzy of speculation.
While it’s clear that people should exhibit caution this fall, how much danger will H1N1 pose this season?
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 40 percent of the population will contract H1N1, but not in some deadly outbreak spanning a matter of days or weeks.
“If you look at what has happened in past pandemics, the 30 to 50 percent of people getting sick is not unreasonable, and that is over a period of months, not all at one time,” said Dr. Judith Hartner, director of the Lee County Health Department.
There are approximately 600,000 people living in Lee County. According to Hartner, deaths from H1N1 would exceed Lee County’s typical influenza mortality rate if only one-half of 1 percent of 150,000 people died.
So far 66 people in Florida have died from the H1N1 strain, leading some to speculate that the virus is more dangerous than seasonal influenza, but experts point out that the issue is more about the number of infections as well a lack of immunity to this strain.
“Influenza is a mild illness, but it does kill people sometimes,” said Hartner. “The issue is that none of us are immune to it and more of us are going to get sick.”
Symptoms of H1N1 don’t vary too much from seasonal influenza, but statistically there will be more deaths because more people are getting sick. Each year, 85 people in Lee County die from influenza or pneumonia, according to the Health Department.
Health officials are monitoring H1N1 as the school year begins. Already in the third week of the year, private schools have reported cases of students displaying flu-like symptoms, but the Lee County School District has yet to announce any suspected infections.
In order to prevent the spread of swine flu or seasonal influenza, the district has instituted a policy of isolating any students showing symptoms until they can be picked up by a parent or guardian. They also ask students and teachers to stay home if they have a fever or any flu symptoms such as body aches, cough or stuffy nose.
“Stay home, don’t go to work or school until you have been without a fever for 24 hours, and wash your hands and cover your cough,” said Hartner.
Hartner said this year’s strain of H1N1 resembles a similar outbreak from 1957 because it’s starting in the summer and there are mild symptoms.
“The 1957 Asian flu is behaving much like the current swine flu that we are seeing right now,” she said.
In the last century the United States has dealt with a number of influenza pandemics. History classes normally touch on the influenza outbreak of 1918, considered the largest recorded illness in history, where 675,000 Americans are estimated to have died. Later, in 1957 a form of “Asian flu” spread once again and in the United States some 70,000 people died.
In 1976, a soldier at Fort Dix died from a flu strain also referred to as swine flu. Fearing the spread of another devastating strain like in 1918, President Gerald Ford ordered nationwide vaccinations, yet the threat never materialized.
And many of the people who took the vaccine in 1976 developed a nerve disease named Guillain-Barré syndrome and 30 later died.
What troubles health experts is that a majority of the H1N1 deaths have occurred in patients who are between the age of 40 and 50. While the flu typically hits children or the elderly hardest, this strain has effected median-aged adults more than any other age.
Six deaths were announced on Wednesday and not one was younger than 20 or older than 57. Personal information about the victims wasn’t divulged, but Hartner speculated that at least two of them had other conditions contributing to their death.
There may be a scientific explanation as to why H1N1 hasn’t effected people 65 or older, said Hartner. Experts are currently debating whether senior citizens — who were alive before 1957 — may have come into contact with the H1N1 strain and perhaps developed some type of immunity.
The Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases are recommending that people get a vaccination for H1N1, but the shots won’t be available until mid-October.
Some doctors are worried that vaccinations are being hastily created like during the 1976 influenza scare.
According to Dr. Erika Schwartz, medical director of Cinergy Health in Miami, there are five scheduled trials for the H1N1 vaccine and while between 2,400 and 4,500 people are supposed to be tested, only 800 have been involved in the trials.
There will be approximately 45 to 50 million doses available once the vaccine is synthesized, but Schwartz said that people shouldn’t be so quick to get the shot.
“More people died from the side effects of the vaccine than the swine flu,” she said. “If we don’t pay attention to history, then we are bound to repeat it.”
Schwartz compared H1N1 to “the common cold” and said there have only been 555 deaths across the United States, while each year some 36,000 people die from influenza, according to the CDC.
She added that people should focus on prevention measures rather than getting the vaccine, because even with the shot people can get sick if they don’t take care of themselves.
“People need to take care of themselves and focus on prevention, wash their hands, not cough on each other, and for children not to share food and drink and if someone is sick to stay home,” she said.
Hartner said the first shipments of the H1N1 vaccine will go to priority groups such as health care workers.
“One of the things about influenza virus is that it is hard to predict because they mutate very quickly, so what is true today could not be true in four to six months,” said Hartner.
Most Cape Coral residents said they want to get the vaccine to protect themselves and their families.
“I have three children and I don’t want to bring it home to them,” Celeste Martin.