Important information about swine flu

ISwine flu is the common name given to a new strain of influenza (flu). It is called swine flu because it is thought to have originated in pigs, but this is not certain. People with swine flu typically have a fever or high temperature (over 38°C) and may also have aching muscles, sore throat and/or a dry cough (see Symptoms). In other words, the symptoms are very similar to seasonal (regular) flu. Most people recover within a week, even without special treatment.


The virus was first identified in Mexico in April 2009. It has since become a pandemic, which means it has spread around the globe. It has spread quickly because it is a new type of flu virus that few, if any, people have full resistance to. Flu pandemics are a natural event that occur from time to time. Last century, there were flu pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968, when millions of people died across the world. In most cases the virus has proved relatively mild. However, around the world hundreds of people have died and it is not yet clear how big a risk the virus is. For this reason, and because all viruses can mutate to become more potent (stronger), scientists are saying we need to be careful.

The situation in the UK

 The UK formally moved from a containment to a treatment phase for swine flu on July 2 2009. Intensive efforts to contain swine flu, for example through automatic school closures, ended. This was to free up capacity to treat the people who are contracting swine flu daily. As in other countries, most of the cases reported so far in the UK have been mild. Only a small number have led to serious illness, and these have often been in patients with existing health problems, such as cancer, that already weakened their immune systems. Some people believe that the government should only give antivirals to those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from swine flu. In other words, if people are otherwise healthy, the virus should be treated with with paracetamol and bed rest until the person is better, as you would with normal flu. However, the government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) believes that there is still some doubt about the risks of the virus. For example, there are reports of some cases in Argentina where young, healthy adults have become extremely ill from swine flu. While there is still this doubt, the government has decided to offer the antiviral medicines Tamiflu or Relenza to everyone who is confirmed with swine flu.

High-risk groups

Some people are more at risk of complications if they catch swine flu, and need to start taking antivirals as soon as it is confirmed that they have the illness. Doctors may advise some high-risk patients to take antivirals before they have symptoms, if someone close to them has swine flu. It is already known that people are particularly vulnerable if they have: * chronic (long-term) lung disease,
* chronic heart disease,
* chronic kidney disease,
* chronic liver disease,
* chronic neurological disease (neurological disorders include motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease),
* immunosuppression (whether caused by disease or treatment), or
* diabetes mellitus.

Also at risk are:
* patients who have had drug treatment for asthma in the past three years,
* pregnant women,
* people aged 65 and over, and
* children under five.

Swine flu vaccine

 The swine flu vaccination programme began on 21 October 2009. The vaccine is being given to those at the greatest risk first. The following groups are being given the vaccine, in this order: * People aged between six months and 65 years who usually get the seasonal flu jab.
* All pregnant women.
* People who live with those whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer patients or people with HIV/AIDS.
* People aged 65 and over in the seasonal flu vaccine at-risk groups.
* Young children aged over six months and under five years.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that those in the initial clinical at-risk groups should continue to be vaccinated over the coming summer. Vaccination for healthy children under five years will continue until the end of the current flu season. For more information, go to the Vaccination: Q&A.

To stop the virus spreading

Although the UK has moved to a treatment phase for swine flu, it is important that people continue to do everything they can to stop the virus from spreading. The most important way is to have good respiratory and hand hygiene. In other words, always sneeze into a tissue, and quickly put it in a bin. Wash your hands and work surfaces regularly and thoroughly to kill the virus.

More on swine flu:

How to care for yourself at home

Advice for pregnant women

The vaccination programme

Can my pet catch swine flu?

Who should be wearing a face-mask?

What are the complications of swine flu?

Is it safe to eat pig meat?

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