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New strain of flu is like an annoying party guest
Demystifying swine flu

Date published: 10/4/2009

IT IS FOR the best that I clear up some myths about the H1N1 2009 influenza strain. First problem: Our nation's pig farmers are not happy that this thing has been nicknamed the "swine flu." Apparently, they are concerned about consumers thinking about the flu when enjoying some delicious bacon.

But our readers are too smart for that--you cannot contract H1N1 influenza from any pork product. What gives me a giggle is that the Department of Agriculture has had significant influence over the CDC, demanding the strain be called H1N1. What swine!

What is all the hype about?

There are a couple of features of this strain of influenza that send a chill up scientists' backs. The first problem is that this is a new strain of influenza, mixing genetic components from avian, swine and human influenza strains. New strains tend to spread like wildfire because the population has not been exposed to them before.

We develop immunity over time to viruses we are vaccinated against, or have been infected with. Without that immunity, transmission is quick.

Despite the novelty of this virus, what has been discovered since the initial alarms were sounded in the spring of 2009 is that 33 percent of Americans over the age of 60 already have some cross reactive antibodies to H1N1. Unfortunately, zero percent of children under the age of 18 have such antibodies.

Why do older Americans have antibodies against H1N1?

The answer to this question leads us to a second source of chills for scientists. This H1N1, although new in its genetic configuration, is not the first H1N1 strain to cause a pandemic.

An H1N1 influenza has been a source of illness in several previous flu seasons. Most recently, in 1977-1978, and before that in 1947-57, although neither of those strains caused a pandemic, but rather were circulating as part of the flu season.

If you were lucky enough to be alive during both of these periods, it is highly likely that you have substantial partial immunity to the 2009 H1N1.

Prior H1N1 strains are not all good news, though. The deadliest flu pandemic in U.S. history was the 1918-1919 season, and was caused by another strain of H1N1.

What do the numbers mean?

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Dr. Christopher Lillis is an internist with Chancellor Internal Medicine in Fredericksburg.