Who's safe from swine flu?

August 25, 2009 8:03:42 AM PDT
No one can say for sure if swine flu will cause big disruptions in classes again this school year, but one thing is certain. The virus is still out there, and can spread very quickly under the right conditions. It appears a flu strain from the 1950's is protecting people above 60 years old from H1N1, or swine flu. Your body has built in immunity from 55 years ago. The second, smaller group is anyone who had H1N1 already. Once you dance with the virus, you likely won't get it again.

For the rest of us, kids may not like returning to school, but the H1N1 virus likely loves it.

This year the normal check up comes with a new warning. Pediatricians have been telling patients stay home if you're sick, cough in your shirt and stay away from sick friends. The H1N1 swine flu never went away and as school starts this week, the H1N1 virus is coming back to school too.

Director of University of Texas Center for Infectious Diseases Dr. Herbert DuPont says it will spread quickly and widely.

"Right now, if we were infected, we would be in the same airspace, sharing the virus," he said.

That means even if your kids follow the doctor's advice, it's no sure thing they'll avoid the new flu.

"I think there will be cases in every school," he said.

Here's why the illness is so easily spread. Let's say you're sick with the regular old flu and walk into a classroom. Some people will have the flu shot and they're protected. Some people already had the illness and built up immunity, so they're protected. The number of people who can pick up that germ is not all that big.

But if you're spreading H1N1 germs, no one has that immunity. The H1N1 vaccine won't be available for two more months, so that protection isn't available. And the virus is so new, so few people have built up any natural immunity yet. That protection is gone. So virtually everyone in that room is vulnerable as you walk around.

"If it spreads rapidly in the student body and they bring it home to pregnant moms and little brothers and sisters and other family members who have respiratory illnesses, that's the population we really worry about," said Dr. David Perse with the Houston Public health Authority.

H1N1 is not necessarily more deadly. The CDC says about 36 000 people die from the regular flu every year. The number is not expected to rise.

"Yes, there are deaths, but I think there are less deaths than you might expect," said Dr. DuPont.

"So thousands of people will get this, but few will die?" we asked.

"That's the pattern we've seen to date," he said.

The CDC is not recommending closing schools to fight the illness. The guidance is only to close schools or businesses if the student body is particularly at risk or if so many students get sick that teaching becomes impossible. We'll know in about a month how serious the outbreak will become.

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