The Hatchet spoke to Dr. Robert Shesser, director of the GW Hospital’s Emergency Department, about the reports of a new strain of the influenza virus known as the swine flu.
How is swine flu different than the average strain of the influenza virus that you would get in the winter time?
We’re not sure. It’s probably not any different at all. Cases that have been reported in the United States don’t seem to be any different. But, then there are all these deaths that are being reported out of Mexico, so nobody here can understand why there are so many deaths in Mexico and that doesn’t seem to be the case among the 50 or 60 cases that have been reported in the United States. To answer your question, most likely there is no difference.
So why are people getting so scared about this?
There are a few things that are getting them scared. Number one is there was the experience in 1918 where there was an influenza pandemic, where the strain of influenza killed a lot of people-particularly young people-because it seemed that people who were infected with that strain who were younger and had a particularly active immune system had a bad outcome and they died very quickly. So people sort of have that in the back of their minds. In this case, there’s the development of a new strain that A, hadn’t been seen before so the population may not have excellent immunity to it, and B, a lot of deaths were being reported. So the combination of a new strain of flu illness that was circulating at a time when the incidents of flu should be going down, because flu is a winter virus, has everybody concerned.
How do you know if you have swine flu?
If you go to your doctor, you are not going to know whether you have this strain or not. Even if we see people in the ER, we don’t know if they have the strain or not, we only know that they have influenza A. Our tests will tell you whether you have influenza A or influenza B. The swine flu shares antigens with influenza A. To determine whether or not you have the Swine Flu, we have to send it to the D.C. Department of Health.
Is it legitimate to quarantine those who test positive for strand A of the influenza during this swine flu scare?
Actually, if you go to the CDC Web site and you look under regular old influenza, if you know you have influenza, they do recommend that you do stay home, quarantined at home so you don’t spread it. So I don’t believe the CDC is recommending anything different for the Swine Flu or the suspected Swine Flu then they’d be recommending for anyone else who had the regular strains of influenza A or B that circulate in society every winter. Essentially what’s being recommended for this is the same as what’s being recommended every winter.
Is the fear that is being hyped up by the media is being blown out of proportion? Do you think that the swine flu is going to wreak havoc on the United States?
It’s probably not [going to wreak havoc]. Most of these things do get a little bit blown out by the 24-hour news cycle. That said, there are some things that are a little unusual. It’s a new strain, there are still questions that people have, so I don’t think that anyone can speak very authoritatively that there’s nothing to worry about and that everything will be fine. The likelihood is that there is nothing to worry about and everything will be fine, but influenza, regular old influenza, is a significant illness. Depending on how many people in society get vaccinated and how accurate the vaccination is in their being able to pick the strain of flu that ends up circulating in society. That ultimately will determine how many people die from it.
For students who live in dorms, it’s easy for diseases to spread when you are living in close quarters with people. Is that an issue?
It’s an issue. It’s an issue because the way you would normally prevent that in the winter is to vaccinate as many people as possible so you would have a group that had immunity. So even though somebody had it, it wouldn’t spread that quickly because you would have a certain number of immune people. Something like this could, in a dorm situation, create a lot of illness, probably not a lot of serious illness, although if there were a student who had some type of serious illness and was living in the dorm, and someone in the dorm came down with influenza, it would be entirely reasonable for them to leave the dorm. But the average student, who from what we have been able to see could become ill with this, it could become very uncomfortable, but very unlikely would it be a serious issue unless A, they had an underlying medical condition or B, the reports from Mexico of a 5 percent case fatality rate.then it would be a big deal.
How can people protect themselves from the spreading disease?
You have to look at it from both the institutional and the individual level. As an individual, if you get sick, you go to the doctor and you stay home. From the institution’s perspective it’s a big problem. If you have a dorm where 30 percent of the people came down with influenza, it creates a lot of problems. It creates a problem for the academic schedule, you have exams coming up, it creates a public relations problem, so there are what you do as an individual, but the institution should be thinking about, ‘What happens if we get a couple of cases? What should we do?’
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/swineflu.