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Surprising Science

Ten Things You Don’t Know About the H1N1 Virus

Back to school season can only mean one thing: Swine Flu season is upon us. Don’t panic. We’re not going to waste your time rehashing all that stuff you’ve been hearing about all summer. With the help of Big Think’s pandemics experts, we’ve sorted through the chaos and put together a list of little-known facts about H1N1- ones you truly need to know. To watch our trusted experts hash out the details Big Think style, check out their exclusive discussion.

It could get bad. Really bad. While the Centers for Disease Control calculate that the number of deaths over the next two years could range from 90,000 to several hundred thousand, the World Health Organization believes H1N1 is still in the “early stages” of a new pandemic. They estimate that 2 billion people (one-third of the world’s population) could be infected over the next two years.

 Older people are less affected by H1N1 because they’ve had it – many times. Dr. Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a Big Think expert, says people over the age of 55 have built up an immunity against swine flu. Why? The viruses that circulated 50 years ago are more closely related to the swine-origin H1N1 viruses than are present day seasonal H1N1 viruses. So exposure to the earlier viruses gives them protection.

Screening for fevers at airports might be a waste. Unlike SARS, a surprisingly low percentage of H1N1 patients actually suffer from fevers, says Big Think panel expert Barry Bloom of Harvard School of Public Health.

Contrary to popular belief, the injectable H1N1 vaccine is not a live virus. So says Dr. Neil Fishman, Director of Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Control at the University of Pennsylvania. The injection generates an immune response to make the person feel like he has the flu. The nasal vaccine, on the other hand, is a live virus, but the virus is mutated so it can only replicate at lower temperatures (at the front of the nose). Once it makes its way into a persons lungs, it can’t replicate.

The vaccine won’t be one prick. Scientists believe the H1N1 vaccine will be most effective if administered in two doses that are three weeks apart. That won’t get you out of your regular seasonal vaccine, though, which has to be in a separate dosage.

Alternative medicine practitioners are getting in the act.  Dr. Arun Bhasme, the vice president of Central Council of Homeopathy in New Delhi, claims that homeopathy can treat H1N1 patients more rapidly than any other vaccine. There are seven to ten drugs (including Glesemicum, Breionia Alba, Aresenicum naplus and Beladona) on the radar.

Tamiflu might hurt children more than it helps. Researchers at Oxford conducted trials of the treatment, which included 248 infected kids. For children under 12, the side-effects outweighed the benefits. 51% reported side-effects (of those, 31% felt sick, 24% suffered headaches, 21% had stomach aches). Peter Holden, the British Medical Association’s H1N1 expert questions the overuse of Tamiflu: “The threshold for getting Tamiflu should be quite high.”

Pregnant women face a dangerous dilemma: they are at the highest risk of becoming ill from swine flu, but nobody in that group will have a chance to test the vaccine. Why? Testing any type of vaccine or drug on pregnant women (and their babies) poses an ethical dilemma – and always has. Dr. Ruth Faden, Executive Director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins, says, “Medicine is flying blind in many cases. Many of the drugs that women take in pregnancy because they’re seriously ill, we just have no evidence what the impact is for them or what the impact will be for their babies.”

The best place to go for information? There are tons of websites out there with handy tips, statistics and roundups of – sometimes false – information. For a comprehensive one-stop shop, Dr. Fishman recommends

If you haven’t watched our full panel discussion, you’re no expert … yet.


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