Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Monday | July 6, 2009
Home : Commentary
Straight talk on H1N1

Garth Rattray

The public impression of the H1N1 flu virus is causing many people to panic unnecessarily. It's a new virus (made up of four different viral strains - including pig, bird and human), so there is no immunity to and (currently) no vaccine for it. Fortunately, most of us have some immunity to circulating seasonal viruses - this reduces the severity of H1N1 infections. H1N1 is a Type-A virus - the kind that spreads easily from person to person and, therefore, causes worldwide epidemics (pandemics).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a phase six pandemic alert for the H1N1 flu. It's the highest phase and indicates that there is widespread human infection. "The pandemic phase is characterised by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in phase five (spread into at least two countries in one WHO region). Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way".

Several people (especially in Mexico) died because of the H1N1 flu; groups of people (including American celebrities travelling overseas) have been quarantined temporarily; some cruise ships were refused docking privileges; some are 'sanitising' passengers returning from onshore activities; scheduled public gatherings have been cancelled and schools have been closed (even in Jamaica) as a result of this new virus.

However, in reality, the H1N1 flu is not anywhere as deadly as it was first believed to be. Fatalities took place in people with pre-existing medical conditions that rendered them susceptible to serious complications. The experts conclude that the H1N1 is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu.

All-out effort

Our Ministry of Health (MOH) has initiated an all-out effort at prevention, surveillance, containment and treatment the H1N1 flu. Information cards are being handed out to all arriving passengers at our ports of entry; public notices are delivered via the media and public- and private-health care providers have been sensitised to this virus.

Initially, some primary care physicians (the front-line defence team) doubted their ability to deal with H1N1 patients effectively. We now know to isolate suspicious patients, mask them if appropriate and practise 'universal protection'. The MOH has tried to ensure that private practitioners are aware of their expected standard of care during this pandemic. Unfortunately, since a seasonal flu is also going around at this time, many frightened patients are over burdening the public health-care system needlessly.

Suspected cases include patients with fever and recent onset of two of the following: cough, sore throat, runny nose/nasal congestion, chills, fatigue, diarrhoea or vomiting. More severe cases may include a diagnosis of pneumonia or other clinically significant findings. A history of recent foreign travel or contact is helpful but not needed for suspicion since we now have confirmed internal circulation of the virus.

Hygiene is extremely important if we are to contain the H1N1 virus. People with cold symptoms must use tissue to trap all coughs, sneezes and nasal secretions and then dispose of them properly. Anyone with flu-like symptoms must isolate themselves and seek medical help if they feel seriously ill. People must wash their hands regularly, especially after shaking hands or touching anything in a public place (door handles, shopping carts, computer keyboards, pens used to sign credit card slips to name a few). Using an alcohol-based hand cleanser is also a good idea.

Bacterial infections

Treatment is mostly symptomatic. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses but may be used to prevent or treat bacterial (respiratory) infections if deemed necessary. Tamiflu is being reserved for severe cases only.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Feedback may be sent to garthrattray@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.

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