As is the case with any quickly developing situation with serious health implications, the emergence of swine flu has been ushered into public consciousness with equal parts fear, misunderstanding and misinformation.
Swine flu (which has been officially christened novel H1N1 or 2009 H1N1 flu) caught health officials off-guard as much as it did the public. In the early days and weeks of the virus, it seemed to spread faster than solid information about it did. It was easy to be confused by the sometimes contradictory reports -- we heard that it was something to be very alarmed about, yet few people who caught the virus were seriously affected by it.
Also, no one was able to say for certain how this virus came to infect humans in the first place. Not helping matters was its somewhat unfortunate name. What better way, after all, to prevent swine flu than to avoid pigs and pork products? It sounds reasonable, but many myths do.
Read on to learn the truth behind five myths about swine flu, starting with a closer look at that pulled pork sandwich you've been avoiding lately.
Some myths have murky beginnings, while others are of a more obvious origin. So it is with the belief that you can catch swine flu by eating contaminated pork. In the absence of any other information, it's a perfectly reasonable strategy to adopt.
Consider it a piece of bad luck for the pork industry that, when first studied, scientists discovered proteins in the flu virus that were also found in a flu virus commonly spread between pigs. Continued research would discover the virus also had a protein found in bird flu, as well as human flu. But right out of the gate, the new virus was identified as "swine flu." It didn't help that the virus was discovered in a rural part of Mexico, near a pig-fattening facility. (For the record, pig farmers have known about swine flu for years, and inoculate their pigs to prevent them from catching it.)
As soon as the new virus was called "swine flu," the pork industry took a hit. Pork prices fell, as well as prices for grain and other sources of pig feed. Egyptian authorities ordered a massive culling of pigs, causing an uproar among Egyptian pig farmers.
Swine flu isn't spread through the eating of pork, unless a human who has swine flu has sneezed on your ham sandwich. And even if it could be spread by eating pork, the influenza doesn't survive contact with cooking temperatures (160 degrees Fahrenheit, or 71 degrees Celsius).
Name aside, swine flu passes from one person to another, just like normal flu.
It's not unusual to see someone in the course of your public outings wearing what looks to be a surgical mask. It's enough to make you wonder if you missed an important announcement.
Most face masks you see in public are due to major respiratory issues or a deficiency in the immune system that puts the wearer at great risk of viral infection even in normal situations.
If you do contract swine flu, you should wear a flu mask if you're traveling or putting yourself in close proximity to others. If you don't have swine flu and are caring for someone who does, you may want to wear a mask -- but you need to be sure to dispose of the mask immediately after leaving his or her proximity. If you wear the same mask repeatedly or touch it with your hands, you may be more likely to get yourself infected than if you hadn't worn any mask at all.
Wearing a mask is a good idea if you work in a hospital or primary care center and make contact with patients who have flu symptoms. You may also want to wear a mask if you are going to a waiting room in a hospital or public health clinic, depending on the spread of the swine flu strain in your community.
Using a face mask isn't a failsafe against catching swine flu. And, after a while, masks get uncomfortable. Your best bet overall is to wash your hands frequently and avoiding touching your eyes, mouth or nose.
Why would a shadowy quasi-governmental cabal of world industrialists engineer a deadly and highly contagious virus, you may wonder. Well, for any number of reasons. What better way to shut down the American-Mexican border than by releasing a highly contagious virus somewhere on the other side of that border? Or, perhaps it's just to thin out the world population, thereby allowing the survivors to divvy up the remaining resources. Maybe your long-neglected swine flu research center needs to drum up some funding for a new office espresso machine.
Some believe the genetic makeup of the virus is so peculiar that it must have been made in a lab. Adding fuel to the Internet-conspiracy fire, a retired virologist in Australia -- Adrian J. Gibbs -- announced his belief that swine flu was a laboratory accident after Gibbs studied publicly available gene sequencing information on the virus.
If this was swept under the rug or ignored, Gibbs' claims may be reason for sustained suspicion about the origins of swine flu. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) took the claim seriously and sought analysis of Gibbs' claims from many different scientists, experts and related agencies. WHO concluded that swine flu is in fact a natural mutation and wasn't created in a laboratory.
The mixing of RNA strands from different viruses is rare, but it happens, and a mix of human, swine and bird flu viruses have reassorted into a single strain before without any human tampering [source: Brown].
You couldn't be blamed for thinking so. Swine flu caused fewer deaths in 2009 than the common flu virus did. It has a low mortality rate, most people didn't catch it, and most of those who did experienced only mild flu symptoms before recovering. So what's with all the hype and alarm swirling the swine flu?
On the one hand, the WHO has given its full attention to the swine flu, labeling it a pandemic in June 2009. However, its spreading appearance around the globe has been somewhat anticlimactic, given all the official concern.
In this age of nonstop news and information, pundits, producers and publishers need something to fill up any voids in the 24-hour news cycle. However, the media for the most part is simply quoting their sources, and these sources -- chiefly the CDC and WHO -- are informing them that there is something for people to be concerned about.
The worst-case scenario is a bad one: The virus will mutate, become more contagious and more resistant to drugs and kill millions of people around the world. Another, more plausible scenario is that it doesn't mutate, but still infects a large percentage of people around the world, killing many, especially those in high-risk categories. Nobody knows, but the risk is real. Hope for the best, but be prepared for the rest.
Since the outbreak of swine flu in spring 2009, "swine flu parties" have appeared. Though not specifically for children, swine flu parties operate on the same principle as the "chicken pox party": The idea is for attendees to become infected with a mild strain of swine flu in order to build resistance against a possibly more dangerous version of the strain down the road.
The CDC doesn't recommend doing this. Here's why: Although most people who have contracted the swine flu have had relatively mild symptoms and recovered quickly, others have had very severe cases and some people have died. It's impossible to know how the swine flu will affect you.
Contracting the swine flu now won't necessarily protect you against a genetic variation of the strain. And while you may fortunately bounce right back after willfully contracting swine flu, you could pass it along to someone who isn't so fortunate, or so willful in their desire to contract it. So, in an attempt to protect yourself against a future unknown, you may just get yourself -- or others -- extremely sick from a current known threat to your health. Your best defense isn't a strong offense when it comes to swine flu, so don't go charging head-first into it. Your safest play is to avoid it altogether, so clear your social calendar of any upcoming swine flu parties.
Want more on swine flu, bird flu and other types of contagious disease? Try the next page for links to more articles.
Vector-borne diseases are those spread by biting insects. HowStuffWorks looks at the alarming rise in infections.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Adams, Mike. Apr. 27, 2009. "As Swine Flu Spreads, Conspiracy Theories of Laboratory Origins Abound." http://www.naturalnews.com/026141_swine_flu_conspiracy_conspiracy_theories.html
- Brown, I.H.; Harris, P.A.; McCauley, J.W.; Alexander, D.J. "Multiple genetic reassortment of avian and human influenza A viruses in European pigs, resulting in the emergence of an H1N2 virus of novel genotype." Journal of General Virology (1998), 79, 2947-2955.http://vir.sgmjournals.org/cgi/reprint/79/12/2947
- Burmeister, Caren. "After local swine flu deaths, Beaches hospitals, schools safeguard." The Florida Times-Union. Aug. 21, 2009.http://www.jacksonville.com/community/shorelines/2009-08-22/story/after_local_swine_flu_deaths_beaches_hospitals_schools_safegua
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Novel H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Aug. 5, 2009. (Aug. 21, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/H1N1flu/qa.htm
- Ferran, Lee; Gaynor, Josh. "Tamiflu Developer: Swine Flu Could Have Come From Bio-Experiment Lab." ABC News. May 14, 2009.http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/SwineFlu/story?id=7584420&page=1
- Friedman, Emily. "Doctors Wary of Dangerous Pox Parties." ABC News. Feb. 2, 2009.http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=6772216&page=1
- Goldacre, Ben. "Swine flu and hype - a media illness." The Guardian. Apr. 29, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/29/swine-flu-hype
- Le Page, Michael. "Is swine flu a bioterrorist virus?" Apr. 27, 2009.http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2009/04/is-swine-flu-a-bioterrorist-vi.html
- McNeil Jr., Donald G. "Swine Flu Not an Accident from a Lab, W.H.O. Says." The New York Times. May 15, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/health/policy/15flu.html
- Paddock, Catharine, PhD. "WHO Says New H1N1 Virus Did Not Come From A Lab." Medical News Today.http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/150136.php
- PRI. "Where did the H1N1 flu start?" The World. May 11, 2009. http://www.pri.org/theworld/?q=node/26251
- Puente, David. "Parents, Kids & Swine Flu Parties?" CNN. May 7, 2009. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/05/07/parents-kids-swine-flu-parties/
- Roan, Shari. "Do face masks help prevent swine flu infection?" The Los Angeles Times. Apr. 28, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sciw-swine-masks28-2009apr28,0,4722242.story
- Soe, Valerie. "A Pox On Your House? Please Call!" San Francisco Chronicle. Jan. 29, 2004.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/g/archive/2004/01/29/chxpox.DTL&type=printable
- Watson, Paul Joseph. "Is Swine Flu A Biological Weapon?" Prison Planet.com. Apr. 27, 2009.http://www.prisonplanet.com/is-swine-flu-a-biological-weapon.html
- World Health Organization. "Pandemic (H1N1) 2009." (Aug. 17, 2009)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en/
- World Health Organization. "Safety of Pandemic Vaccines." Aug. 6, 2009. (Aug. 16, 2009)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/notes/h1n1_safety_vaccines_20090805/en/index.html
- World Health Organization. "The safety of pork." May 1, 2009. (Aug. 17, 2009)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/frequently_asked_questions/pork_safety/en/index.html
- World Health Organization. "What is the new influenza A (H1N1)?" June 11, 2009. (Aug. 19, 2009) http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/frequently_asked_questions/about_disease/en/index.html