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Swine Flu Influenza A (H1N1) update

What is the latest influenza A (H1N1) information?

At 16:11 GMT on Thursday 11 June 2009, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, announced that the influenza pandemic alert status was being raised from level five to six. This means a pandemic of influenza A(H1N1) (colloquially known as swine flu) has been declared. This action was taken because of the confirmation of sustained human-to-human transmission in two geographic regions (North America and the Western Pacific).
The WHO stressed that the rise in alert level indicates an increase in the number of cases of the disease and how quickly it is spreading - it is not a sign that the virus has become more severe. The majority of cases so far have been mild and patients have responded positively to antiviral treatment. Many infected people have recovered without the need for hospital treatment or even medicines.
The best advice for everyone to reduce the risk of infection is still:
  • Stay at home if you have symptoms of the flu: don't go to work, don't visit your GP but call him or her, or NHS Direct for advice.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and use a tissue when possible.
  • Dispose of dirty tissues promptly and carefully.
  • Maintain good basic hygiene, for example, washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to your face or other people.
  • clean hard surfaces (eg door handles) frequently using a normal cleaning product.
  • make sure your children follow this advice.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease that affects numerous populations or countries. A flu pandemic happens when a new version of the flu virus emerges and spreads easily and quickly across the world. A flu pandemic can be caused by a dramatic change to the flu virus, or a change to the virus that occurs when strains of flu from different species combine. This mix of genes can make a new virus to which most people will have little or no immunity.

What is swine flu?

Swine flu is a contagious respiratory disease found in pigs that is caused by type A influenza viruses.4 The virus often causes outbreaks in pigs, and many countries regularly vaccinate their pigs against the virus.
It's not normal for swine influenza to affect people, although there have been a small number of cases in the past. These cases were mostly in people who had been in direct contact with infected pigs.4

How is influenza A (H1N1) different from normal swine flu?

The new influenza virus that has been seen in humans is very different to what normally circulates in pigs. It combines genes from humans, pigs and birds.3

What is the difference between bird flu and swine flu?

Different strains of the flu virus cause the disease in different animals because they have adapted to infect that species. In the same way, human flu viruses have adapted to infect humans. Sometimes, strains of the virus can be passed between humans and animals. When this happens, the viruses may mix and lead to new viruses that can infect humans. Most people will have little or no immunity to this strain.4

Can it spread between people?

Yes. It appears that the A (H1N1) virus is contagious and that it can spread from person to person.3 The virus is thought to be transferred in the same way as normal influenza, through coughing, sneezing, or close contact. You can't get swine influenza from pork or pork products as long as they are properly prepared and cooked.3

How long does an infected person take to spread the disease?

A person can infect others a day before symptoms appear and for up to seven days afterwards. Children may be contagious for longer.3

What are the symptoms of swine flu?

The symptoms of influenza A (H1N1) influenza are similar to ordinary influenza and include fever, cough, sore throat, headaches, chills, muscle aches and tiredness.3

Who is most at risk?

Influenza A (H1N1) can affect anyone, even if they are fit and healthy.3 People who have other medical conditions and pregnant women appear to be at greater risk of complications.3

How is swine flu diagnosed?

Swine flu can be diagnosed in a lab by analysing a respiratory specimen taken within the first four to five days of the illness. This is the best time to diagnose it, although some people, especially children, can be diagnosed for 7 days after the start of their symptoms, or longer.5

Is there a vaccine to prevent it?

Not yet because this flu involves a new type of virus. Currently available influenza vaccines will not protect against infection with A (H1N1) in people.3,6 Work is underway to develop such a vaccine and it should be available in a few months.6 The best scientific evidence currently suggests that seasonal influenza vaccines will offer little or no protection against influenza A (H1N1).6

What can people do to reduce their risk of catching or spreading it?

If you do have flu-like symptoms, you should stay off work or school and minimise contact with other people.
The best advice for everyone to reduce the risk of infection is: 2,7
  • stay at home if you have symptoms of the flu
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and use a tissue when possible
  • dispose of dirty tissues promptly and carefully
  • maintain good basic hygiene, for example, washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to face or to other people
  • clean hard surfaces (eg door handles) frequently using a normal cleaning product
  • make sure your children follow this advice
You do not need to alter your diet. Swine influenza can't be transferred through pork or pork products as long as they are properly prepared and cooked to over 70C throughout.3

What should I do if I think I have symptoms of swine flu?

A swine flu information line has been set up by the Department of Health on 0800 1 513 513. You can phone this number to hear the latest advice.8
If you think you have flu-like symptoms and you have recently travelled to an affected area, phone your GP for advice or contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647 in England (or NHS 24 in Scotland on 08454 24 24 24 and on 0800 0514 142 in Northern Ireland).8
You shouldn't go to your GP surgery or A&E department unless you are seriously ill or advised to do so, as you may spread the illness to others.8
Antiviral medicines can help to relieve symptoms, reduce the length of time you are ill and reduce the potential for serious complications.8 However, most previously reported cases of swine flu have recovered from the disease without the need for antiviral medicines.7 Your doctor will advise you if you need antiviral medicines.
There are a number of things you can do at home to help your symptoms.2
  • Drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Stay at home and rest.
  • Take over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen to help with symptoms.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. Children under 16 years old should not be given aspirin or any medicines containing aspirin.

Do I need to wear a face mask?

There's no evidence that wearing a face mask will protect you against the flu virus. However, because the virus can be spread through coughing and sneezing, if you have become infected, wearing a mask may prevent you from infecting other people.

What countries are affected by swine flu?

At 14:00 GMT, Thursday 11 June 2009, according to the WHO, 74 countries had reported 28,774 confirmed cases of influenza A (H1N1) with 141 deaths.1 See the WHO flu website for regular updates on the numbers.

What is the current travel advice?

The WHO does not recommend any travel restrictions based on the current outbreak of influenza A (H1N1).10 The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has lifted all previous restrictions on travel. Visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for the latest country-specific advice.

Am I covered?

Contact Health Matters on Freephone 0800 988 0085 to find out if your health insurance covers influenza A (H1N1).


1.    Influenza A (H1N1) - update 47. World Health Organization. 11 June 2009.
2.    What can I do? World Health Organisation.
3.    H1N1 flu (swine flu) and you. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4.    Swine influenza cases: Questions and Answers.
5.    Key facts about swine influenza. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6.    Vaccines for the new influenza A (H1N1) virus. World Health Organisation.
7.    Swine influenza cases: questions and answers. Health Protection Agency.
8.    Important information about swine flu. Department of Health. April 2009.
9.    Swine flu - prevention and treatment.
10.    Travel. World Health Organisation.
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Editor: Ryan Cranston

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All content in this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. HEalth Matters is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of Health Matters website. Health Matters is not liable for the content of any external internet sites listed. Always consult your own GP if you are in any way concerned about your health.

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