As is the case with any quickly developing situation with serious health implications, the emergence of H1N1 has been ushered into public consciousness with equal parts fear, misunderstanding and misinformation. Read on to learn the truth behind five myths about H1N1.
5: YOU CAN CATCH IT FROM EATING PORK
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.)
Swine flu is spread from one person to another like any other flu, not through the eating of pork, unless an infected human has sneezed on your ham sandwich. And even if it could be spread by eating an infected pig, the influenza doesn't survive contact with cooking temperatures (160 degrees Fahrenheit, or 71 degrees Celsius).
4. A MASK WILL PROTECT YOU
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 greater risk of contracting viral infections even in normal situations.
If you do contract H1N1, you should wear a flu mask if you're traveling or putting yourself in close proximity to others. If you don't have H1N1 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 H1N1 strain in your community.
Using a face mask isn't a fail-safe against catching swine flu. And, after a while, masks get uncomfortable. Your best bet overall is to wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose.
3: H1N1 IS A LAB-ENGINEERING VIRUS
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 studying publicly available gene sequencing information on the virus.
If Gibbs' claim had been swept under the rug or ignored, there might be reason for sustained suspicion about the origins of H1N1. However, the World Health Organization took his assertions seriously and sought analysis 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 re-assorted into a single strain before without any human tampering.
2: IT'S NOT WORTH ALL THE HYPE
You wouldn't be blamed for thinking H1N1 is much ado about nothing. In 2009 it had 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?
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 Centers for Disease Control 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 won't mutate but will still infect 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.
1: PREVENTION THROUGH CONTRACTION IS A GOOD PLAN
Since the outbreak of H1N1 in spring 2009, "swine flu parties" have appeared. Though not specifically for children, these parties operate on the same principle as the "chicken pox party": for attendees to become infected with a mild strain of the virus 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.