An overview of the H1N1 viral strain

Recently, the National Institute of Virology confirmed a slight revival in H1N1 influenza. Here is an overview of the strain and how it can be prevented

By Dr Parul R Sheth

With the dip in temperatures, people are queuing up at doctors’ clinics with common complains such as sore throat, persistent cough and body ache. Undoubtedly, the symptoms suggest that the flu season is on. Cold weather is conducive to the transmission of air-borne influenza viruses. The National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune had stated earlier that the infection rate of H1N1 influenza had gone down to zero. Unfortunately, recently NIV confirmed a slight revival in the infection when three deaths were reported because of swine flu (H1N1) infection in Pune. 

Early laboratory testing showed that many genes in this virus were similar to those found in pigs of North America, which is why the illness was called swine flu. Further tests later proved that this virus has gene segments from the swine, avian and human flu virus genes. Scientists therefore discarded the previous name and renamed the virus as Influenza-A (H1N1). 

It is true that flu viruses mutate quickly. There can be many strains of H1N1 flu, which is a variety of the most common type influenza A virus category. Says Dr Hemant Thacker, consultant physician at Jaslok, Breach Candy and Bhatia Hospitals, Mumbai, “These days we are seeing an increased incidence of flu but it is a mild influenza A.” Mumbai-based Dr Prakash Katakia, family physician and occupational health consultant, agrees, “Winter definitely brings in more cases of flu, but this season, we have not seen proven cases of H1N1 swine flu nor suspected milder version of it in an epidemic form.”

Experts believe that this year H1N1 flu will not turn into a pandemic because many people have been exposed to it and have built up immunity against the virus. “A vaccine that protects against the strain of H1N1 is commercially available for protection. But I would leave it to an individual to decide about the use of vaccine on a routine basis and prescribe it only to immune-compromised and susceptible persons”, says Dr Thacker.

Signs of illness
The virus spreads from person to person through droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth via cough and sneeze. The symptoms of H1N1 influenza are similar to those of regular seasonal flu. People complain of fever, cough, body ache, sore throat, headache, chills and severe fatigue. Some may suffer from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Most flu cases are mild and self-limiting. However, according to Dr Prasant Mohapatra from Department of Pulmonary Medicine, Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, sometimes H1N1 influenza progresses to severe pneumonia or inflammation of the lungs within days, needing hospitalization and breathing aids.

Are you suffering from H1N1 influenza?
If you experience flu symptoms, you may wonder whether you have contracted H1N1 swine flu virus. Unless specialized tests are carried out you may not know about your virus strain. But if you suspect that you have contracted H1N1 influenza infection, avoid contact with other people. Rest at home and take symptomatic treatment for fever, pain and cough advised by your doctor. Be sure to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading the virus.  

Symptomatic medicines such as paracetamol help control fever and relieve pain. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir or zanamivir, if required. Look out for signs of troubled breathing, lethargy, bluish skin colour and not drinking enough fluids in children. In adults if you notice shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness and confusion, seek immediate medical help. 

Take precautions

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to prevent the spread of germs
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or handkerchief when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the tissue and wash the handkerchief before reusing it
  • Avoid close contact with those having respiratory illnesses
  • Regularly wipe surfaces that you touch e.g. remote control or door knobs
  • Eat healthy foods, drink plenty of liquids, exercise regularly and sleep well
  • Try to avoid going to crowded public places

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