The Harvard Health Letter selected H1N1 as the top health story of the year, in part because health officials and the general public approached the H1N1 pandemic with relative calm, despite the fact that this strain of influenza had (and still has) the potential to become more virulent and more infectious.
For years, health officials closely monitored the H5N1 bird flu virus to watch for mutations that would make it transmissible among humans. Then, H1N1 emerged composed of four strains: two strains of swine flu, a human strain and a bird strain. Unlike seasonal flu, hospitalization and death rates from H1N1 have been higher in healthy young adults than in those over 60.
Yet, despite the unique characteristics of this flu, H1N1 seemed to be a pandemic without panic The publication attributes the public’s rational perspective to several key factors: 1) most of the news about H1N1 was reassuring because it was factual (not inflammatory) and had to do with the virus itself; 2) a measured public health response, with plenty of available information (this is the first Internet-age pandemic); 3) a vaccine was developed and put into production; and 4) simple, easy concrete steps the public could take to prevent the spread of H1N1, such as covering your cough, staying home when sick, handwashing with soap, use of hand sanitizer and a concerted effort to disinfect surfaces.
This positive outlook, however, is tempered by the fact that flu season hasn’t yet peaked and much could still go wrong, especially since flu viruses are more contagious and more likely to produce severe illness in cold, dry air. Therefore, it is important to get the H1N1 flu vaccine, wash your hands often in accordance with CDC guidelines and keep surfaces clean by wiping them down with a disinfectant according to the directions on the product label. In addition, the CDC advises a number of other helpful tips to help prevent the spread of H1N1.
(Ralph Morris, M.D., M.P.H., is a preventive health and public health physician, and a member of the Water Quality & Health Council).