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Pandemic Flu

The Latest on Influenza: 2010-2011

Influenza is a contagious viral respiratory illness. The illness may be mild to severe. In general, older people, young children, and those with underlying medical illnesses are at the highest risk for serious influenza complications. However, in 2009-2010, a new and very different flu virus (called 2009 H1N1) spread worldwide causing the first flu pandemic (widespread throughout the world) in more than 40 years. Young adults (age 18-64) were more severely affected by 2009 H1N1 than any other age group. In the United States, 90 per cent of the hospitalizations and 87 per cent of the deaths from 2009 H1N1 occurred in people under 65 years of age, most of whom had underlying health conditions. Pregnant women were at especially high risk for complications and death.

During this flu season, 2009 H1N1 virus is causing illness again along with other influenza viruses. There have been recent outbreaks of H1N1 2009 influenza in the United Kingdom and other European countries. In the United States from Oct 2-Dec 11,2010, the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus caused disease in humans, but it was responsible for only a small proportion of total cases seen to date. Other strains of influenza A as well as influenza B are circulating. The 2010-2011 flu vaccine will protect against 2009 H1N1 and two other influenza viruses. In the United States, influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone older than 6 months of age and is the most effective way to prevent this infection.

Symptoms

Influenza is most commonly characterized by:

Seeking Care

Your doctor will decide whether to test and/or treat for influenza, depending on your personal history and symptoms. Your doctor needs as much information as you can offer. Tell your doctor if you have:

Diagnosis

Depending on your history and symptoms, here are some of the things your doctor may do:

Testing for Influenza

The doctor will get a sample from your nose, throat or both. He/she may do a "rapid test" as well as a culture which will be sent to the lab.

Rapid Test - The rapid test gives results in about 15 minutes but has some limits:

  1. Doesn't determine the strain - The rapid tests confirms only that a virus is present. The rapid test cannot tell for certain that the H1N1 virus is there.
  2. False Negatives - It is also possible in many cases that the test will be negative even though a person is infected.

To get complete results, a sample may be sent to the lab for further testing.

Treatment

Treatment for influenza is available with medications, Tamiflu® or Relenza®. Tamiflu® is taken by mouth (as a pill or liquid) and Relenza® is a similar kind of medicine in an inhaled form. It is encouraging to note that these antiviral medications (particularly Tamiflu®) are effective in treating influenza this season, with rare instances of Tamiflu resistance being reported worldwide. In contrast, during the 2008-2009 influenza season, 95% of human influenza A strains were Tamiflu® resistant.

Both Tamiflu® and Relenza® are from a particular group called 'neuraminidase inhibitors.' The way these medicines work is to 'inhibit' the virus particles - stopping them in their tracks - so that they cannot reproduce. While it doesn't kill the virus (cure the flu) these medicines can make the symptoms less severe, shorten the time of illness and decrease the shedding of virus and thus the risk of infecting others.

Stay Home If You Think You Are Sick

Influenza is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people. If you get sick with influenza-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, headaches, body aches, the CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to avoid spreading infections (including influenza and other respiratory illnesses).

Avoid Getting Sick

For more information:

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This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Jan 10, 2011

Amy J Ray, MD Amy J Ray, MD
Assistant Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University

Robert A Salata, MD Robert A Salata, MD
Professor of Medicine
Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University