Swine flu has been on everyone's mind, and the topic of conversation for months. As a result, several myths have sprung up about this virus, myths that either exaggerate its dangers or minimize it. The truth is usually somewhere in between, and we take a look at these myths to see what the facts really are.
Myths about how dangerous swine flu is
Words like epidemic and pandemic bring to mind images of death and destruction matched only by the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The all-too-real danger posed by a new flu virus can be magnified if we're not careful. So here are some of the myths out there, making swine flu sound worse than it is.
Properly handled pork products - favorites like bacon and ham - should be heated to an internal temperature of 160°F before they're eaten, no matter what virus you're worried about. This has been the standard treatment for pork for a long time, and destroys most bacteria and viruses, including the swine flu virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) say it's safe to go outside, and they're the experts. They're saying the usual precautions for avoiding disease in public are sufficient - so here's a reminder about what you need to know about venturing into the outside world:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Avoid getting too close to people who are sick, or look sick - for instance if they're coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless you have just washed your hands.
- If you're particularly concerned about avoiding viruses when out in public, wearing a surgical mask fitted snugly over your nose and mouth can make some difference in your chances of contracting a virus.
As it turns out, there's some validity to this myth, but the reality is far more complicated than the myth would have you believe. It's true that with most flu outbreaks - the ones we see every winter - the virus is more dangerous for children, the elderly, and those who have a chronic illness. That's why the usual flu shots are prioritized for people in these categories when supplies are small. But the swine flu that showed up this year doesn't seem to care what category you think you fit into. People across the board are getting infected - but it's proving difficult to predict how dangerous it will be for each individual person. For many, its effects can be mild, but there are those whose immune systems overreact to the infection and cause more problems than the virus did on its own. So for some people, having a strong immune system can be a liability as it throws everything it's got at the infection, and floods the lungs with fluid. This is why the 1918 flu pandemic was so deadly - but anti-viral medications like Tamiflu hadn't been invented back then, so we can't presume the same things will happen today.
Not so fast. There have been several outbreaks of swine flu in the USA - they've just been smaller than the one we're seeing now. In 1976 there was even a death from the swine flu outbreak among five soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And in 1988 a community in Wisconsin fought off a swine flu outbreak. In fact, it's not always easy to track flu virus origins, and if a strain is only causing mild symptoms, it may not attract the attention of researchers. So it's possible - even likely - that a mild swine flu has swept the world several times already.
Myths about how mild swine flu is Just as there are persistent myths about how bad the swine flu outbreak is - there are also myths that minimize the dangers. We all want to believe things aren't really all that bad, so we're eager to hold on to myths that say things are better than we thought and we don't have to worry. It's important to keep these myths in perspective too.
This is unlikely. There are several strains of flu going around right now - as there always are - and even some other diseases who have similar symptoms to the flu. It's true that most cases of the swine flu in the USA have been fairly mild illnesses, but that doesn't mean everyone feeling ill has swine flu. The virus itself has to be carefully examined by an expert to know for sure if it's swine flu or some other kind of flu. Individuals need to be aware of their own health status and seek medical care based on actual symptoms, and not on what kind of illness they think they might have. If you're having trouble breathing, see your doctor. The "regular" flu virus can be quite deadly all by itself if not treated properly.
Not true. The reason this swine flu is so dangerous is that it's easily transfered from person to person via coughs, sneezes, or unwashed hands. The first infections - and the most dangerous ones - may have originally come from those who are employed in pig-centric jobs, but this epidemic has gone way beyond those beginnings.
The seasonal flu vaccine will not give you immunity against swine flu; you will need the swine flu vaccine for that. Similarly, the swine flu vaccine will not protect you against seasonal flu. For protection against both strains of flu, you will need to get the vaccine for each one.