00:00 Saturday 01 August 2009  Written by Gilda Howard

Important to know the symptoms of swine flu

THERE is always something to cause an alarm and now it is swine flu, and it is not that long ago when our big worry was bird flu. Before that I can never remember animal flu wreaking havoc on the human race. To make matters more confusing, this time it apparently originated in pigs, and not in birds. With the amount of animals still left on the planet, it seems that we could be in for an innumerable amount of diseases all linked to some animal or other. Let's hope that is just a thought, but it seems that swine flu followed the bird flu rather quickly!

I have been hearing so much about swine flu on the radio and in papers over the last few weeks that I just feel we can't ignore it, because ignoring it will not make it go away. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease in pigs caused by one of several swine influenza 'A' viruses. In addition, a different type of viruses, the influenza 'C' viruses, may also cause this sort of illness in swine. Current strategies to control swine influenza viruses in animals typically include one of several commercially available swine influenza virus vaccines - just like the annual flu campaign for us humans!

I have read up a lot on this subject and the good doctor tells us that transmission of swine influenza viruses to humans is uncommon. However, the swine influenza virus can be transmitted to humans via direct and close contact with infected pigs or such contact with environments contaminated with swine influenza viruses. Once a human becomes infected (and as I write this article there are already 156 cases in the country), he or she can then spread the virus to other humans, presumably in the same way as seasonal influenza is spread (via coughing or sneezing).

I welcome the fact that shaking hands at Mass offering peace to each other has been stopped because this is another sure way to spread germs. If someone has a heavy cold and is using their tissue or handkerchief during Mass and then with that hand they are offering peace to each other, well, this must surely be the perfect way to spread germs. I think a small wave of the hand is perfect in offering peace and far more hygienic.

The ability to trace outbreaks of similar swine flu in humans dates back to investigation of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected one third of the world's population (an estimated 500 million people) and caused approximately 50 million deaths. In those days the relationship between these viruses and the illnesses was not as clearly understood as it is nowadays, and thank God that medicine has come a long way since then and we are in a much better position to cope when something like this hits us out of the blue!

I was reading a medical report written by a medical practitioner in Spain who says that, back in 1918, 'the relationship between these viruses and the illnesses was not as clearly understood as it is nowadays, the answer did not begin to emerge until the 1930s, when these related influenza viruses (now known as HINI viruses) were isolated from pigs and then humans'.

In humans, the severity of swine influenza can vary from mild to severe. From 2005 until January 2009, 12 human cases of swine flu were reported in the United States. None were fatal. In 1988, however, a previous healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman in Wisconsin died of pneumonia as a complication of swine influenza.

FEARS

Here in Ireland as public health fears continue, the HSE studied the breakdown of the 156 cases confirmed in the country, and so far it shows that people aged under 34 are most likely to fall victim to swine flu. Some 11 per cent of cases occurred in children aged four years and under, while only three per cent affected people over 64 years. The elderly may have more resistance purely due to the fact that they have been exposed to other flu viruses in the past. The Department of Health's chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said that up to one million Irish people could contract the illness.

One consolation we can take on board is that this swine flu appears to be mild and most people can be treated in their homes if diagnosed in time. Rest seems to be the order of the day and after a week to ten days they should recover and feel much better. At least there is a vaccine on hand, unlike long ago when people got scarlet fever and many of those who were not inoculated in time did not make it. This was also the case for tuberculosis when sadly a lot of young and old people died from that disease.

We must all take the necessary precautions because it is so easily transmitted through the air - a cough or sneeze from an infected person is all that it takes to spread it; or touching a contaminated object and afterwards touching one's own mouth or nose. (Wearing a mask makes sense.) People are also wondering should we cut out pork in our diet. The answer to that is eating pork poses no risk whatsoever.

We all need to be familiar with the symptoms too. We are told that they are, of course, very similar to those of the 'normal' seasonal influenza. Patients who get symptoms of acute respiratory illness, with at least two of the following: fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, diarrhoea and vomiting (sometimes).

The duration of illness is typically 4 to 6 days. The infectious period for a confirmed case is defined as one day prior to the onset of symptoms to seven days after onset.

The main danger lies in the bacterial infections which tend to accompany (any) viral infection, so the good doctor tells us. Of these, a bacterial pneumonia is the most frequent and the most feared, so if you have similar symptoms to those above, quick action is the name of the game.

Other precautions to take are to wash your hands frequently with soap and water - cover your face when sneezing or coughing with a paper tissue, which should then carefully be disposed of, and avoid travelling to high-risk areas, like Mexico.

On your return from travelling carefully monitor your health for about ten days, if any symptoms do appear, do not delay in contacting your local health authority, as we all know 'a stitch in time saves nine'!

Just today the HSE issued advice to businesses in Ireland regarding planning for the influenza pandemic. The HSE has now moved into the treatment phase rather than managing the containment of the spread of this pandemic.

plans

As a pandemic, planning is not solely a public health issue, a co-ordinated response from all Government departments and all sectors of society, including the business community, has started. All businesses need to consider the implications of an influenza pandemic for their business and make business continuity plans.

It is only right that businesses should take all the precautions they possibly can, otherwise they could find themselves very short-staffed throughout the coming winter and this would have a significant impact in economic activity and business continuity. While we are led to believe that some companies already have plans in place for business continuity regarding major incidents, some do not. The pandemic is currently gaining a foothold in this country and it will be a number of weeks before it is widespread. Now is the time to plan in order to protect your staff and your business.

Paul Connors, HSE Director of Communications, emphasised that 'acknowledging that a significant problem is coming down the track for businesses is the first critical requirement, plan accordingly and communicate with staff in order to help protect staff and reduce the impact on productivity levels'.

Critical areas to be covered include: absenteeism and workforce management; containment advice; decontamination and hygiene; staff and supplier communications; customer communications; cross staff training.

It is worth taking every precaution early because if any business becomes really short-staffed, many other businesses might suffer as a result too.

For further information visit the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment website at www.entemp.ie.

Influenza A (HINI) information is available on the 24-hour HSE 'flu information line, freephone 1800 941 100.

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