The “Swine Flu” and UCI: The Risk, The Facts and How to Stay Protected

Two possible cases of the swine influenza A virus were confirmed in Orange County as of Thursday, April 30. But as the community and the nation as a whole moves from epidemic to pandemic, many people remain unsure as to is the extent of the disease.

A strain of the influenza A subtype H1N1 virus or “swine flu” has eight different segments, some of which come from human-type viruses and others that come from pig and bird-type viruses. This combination of segments results in a struggle for doctors as they try to create a treatment or a vaccination for the new virus.

The virus is thought to have originated on a pig farm in Mexico. Experts cannot say exactly how the virus spreads or how much danger it really presents, but it has already spread to four continents, including countries as far-flung as Austria, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

According to UC Irvine Professor of emergency medicine Kristi Koenig, the primary concerns with the virus are two-fold.

“The seasonal flu is an important issue as well,” Koenig said, “and it is true that 36,000 people or so per year die of that. However, those are generally more elderly, very young or [in poor health]. One of the concerns with the H1N1 is that there are deaths reported among the young healthy people, so that is a concern.”

Another concern is the fact that the virus is new, meaning doctors are not fully aware of its characteristics and have not developed vaccines yet to protect against it. Currently, there has only been one death caused by the flu in the U.S.; however, at least 19 have died in Mexico, according to the latest report from the BBC.

Despite the surprising ages of the patients who have died in Mexico, researchers are still unclear about how to interpret the statistics.

“We don’t really know how many mild cases have occurred,” said Donald Forthal, associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases. “Even though there have been numerous deaths, we don’t know what the denominator is. Is it 15 out of 100? Is it 15 out of 10,000?”

This also presents a problem for the American public, who is worried about what kinds of effects the swine flu will have on the country. As swine flu mania has swept the presses, more and more people have preemptively gone to hospitals, asking to be checked for the H1N1 virus.

Because the symptoms of the H1N1 are virtually the same as any other flu, deciphering who has the swine flu is a fairly difficult process. When individuals visit hospitals, doctors first examine them to make sure that patients have an influenza virus and not simply one of many possible “influenza-like symptoms.”

Next, if the patient indeed has influenza, he or she is then tested to determine whether it is type A or type B. If type A, there is a strong chance that the patient has the swine flu, but more tests must be run. According to Forthol, the tests to determine whether the type A is truly the H1N1 virus are not done on-site and may take a few days to process.

The length of time it takes to test a patient for the flu is considered to be too long and experts, including Forthal, recommend taking measures to stay away from everyone if sick.

“If you get sick,” explained Chancellor Drake in his e-mail to all UCI students last Monday, “stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.”

Other precautionary measures include washing hands as much as possible, avoiding contact with sick people and covering the nose and mouth when sneezing. UCI also has a multi-level plan for responding to the flu, which can be found on the Environmental Health and Safety Web site.

Each level of response contains different directions for each department to handle. Some of the more extreme precautions include “maintain[ing] a morgue site,” “activat[ing] a plan for isolation and quarantine” and “contact[ing the] coroner, if necessary.” These examples of responses are to be performed when the school reaches level three. UCI is currently at level two.

Another surprising precaution that the school is taking to ensure student safety is a Web-based registration system that tracks out-of-state travel online. The online system allows “for employees and students traveling on official business to be covered for a variety of accidents and incidents at no cost to the traveler.”

“One of the good things is that we have been planning for something like this for many, many years,” Koenig said. “We have stockpiles of antivirals, we have stockpiles of equipment, [and] we have systems in place at the Federal, state and local levels.”

Koenig is confident that the virus will continue to spread.

“We can expect that we’ll see more cases,” Koenig said. “We can expect that we’ll see more deaths. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until we confirm a case in O.C. for example. We are monitoring the situation closely and we are taking action based on the best data and the best science that we have. We are also working at the government and developing a vaccine, but that takes many months.”