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Novel H1N1 Flu: What It Is
In June 2009 the World Health Organization (WHO) signaled that a global pandemic of novel influenza A (H1N1) was underway by raising the worldwide pandemic alert level. This action was a reflection of the spread of the new H1N1 virus, not the severity of illnesses caused by the virus. The United States continues to report the largest number of novel flu cases of any country worldwide, however, most people who have become ill have recovered without requiring medical treatment.

The novel (also known as H1N1 or swine) flu virus that is currently circulating is a unique combination of swine and human flu viruses. This virus was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is actually very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes. Scientists call this a “quadruple reassortant” virus.

Although its original reference was swine flu, this virus is transmitted from person to person, not from pigs to humans. This novel influenza virus is not spread by food. You cannot get this novel influenza from eating pork or pork products.

In the annual seasonal flu, certain people are at “high risk” of serious complications. This includes people 65 years and older, children younger than five years old, pregnant women, and people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions. About 70 percent of people who have been hospitalized with the novel H1N1 virus have had one or more medical conditions previously recognized as placing people at “high risk” of serious seasonal flu-related complications. This includes pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and kidney disease.

One thing that appears to be different from seasonal flu is that adults older than 64 years do not yet appear to be at increased risk of novel H1N1-related complications so far. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory studies have shown that no children and very few adults younger than 60 years old have existing antibody to novel H1N1 flu virus. However, about one-third of adults older than 60 years old may have antibodies against the virus. The information analyzed by CDC supports the conclusion that novel H1N1 flu has caused greater disease burden in people younger than 25 years of age than older people. At this time, there are few cases and few deaths reported in people older than 64 years old, which is unusual when compared with seasonal flu. Keep in mind this is not the case with the high-risk populations (pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, kidney disease, suppressed immune systems, and neurocognitive and neuromuscular disorders).

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