2009 Pandemic H1N1 Influenza A: A Balanced Presentation by a Family Practice Physician

Extreme Thinkover Guest Article

2009 Pandemic H1N1 Influenza A:

A Balanced Presentation by a Family Practice Physician

By John Bogen, MD; Northwestern University Medical School, 1994

I am a family practice physician who wishes to write a balanced presentation of facts – no fear mongering in either direction. In the article below I often use the misnomer “swine flu” since it is by this name that the general public has come to know this virus. I am not trying to be “politically correct” here – scientifically the virus has swine, avian, and human influenza virus components – it’s just too cumbersome and wordy to write “2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza A” when “swine flu” is understood. “Seasonal flu” refers to the strains of influenza we see in “non-pandemic” years.

Disclosure: I have no ties, financial or otherwise, to the government or pharmaceutical companies. I do own mutual funds which invest in thousands of different companies. I do not benefit financially if patients are vaccinated (reimbursement covers just the cost of vaccine, and there is no mark-up).

H1N1 Virus

H1N1 Virus

The virus which started this pandemic was first identified in Mexico in March 2009, and then in California in April 2009. Influenza vaccine takes 5-8 months to invent, test, produce, test again, manufacture on a large scale, allocate, distribute, and administer. The chicken egg-based process has its limitations. A case could be made to develop other methods to improve speed and allow people allergic to egg proteins safe access to vaccine.

Clinical trials of several thousand people show that the swine flu vaccine is safe, but it is reasonable to expect rare serious reactions to occur once millions of people are vaccinated. More commonly, some people feel arm soreness or generalized malaise for a few days after the shot. This is a reaction of the body’s immune system to the vaccine. You cannot get the actual influenza infection from either swine or seasonal flu shots. The vaccine will likely save tens of thousands of lives, some of them through herd immunity if a critical percent of people in communities get vaccinated. The absolute benefit of the vaccine will obviously be reduced by any delays there are in getting vaccinated.

Unvaccinated, the estimated case fatality rate for swine flu is similar (we won’t know more precise numbers for a few months) to the seasonal flu, “only” 0.01-0.1%. This is lower than in 1918, and comparable to 1957 & 1968. We can expect more people to get the influenza this season than in normal flu seasons since this is a pandemic – there is little natural immunity to this new virus in the general population. If 100 million (one third of the U.S. population) people get infected, this means approximately (ballpark figure; it won’t be 1,000 or 1 million) 10,000-100,000 deaths. The practical benefit for most people isn’t preventing hospitalization or death, but rather it’s like an “insurance policy” against getting influenza and missing a week of work or staying home to care for a sick child, or for that college student who doesn’t want to risk getting sick during final exams week in the heart of flu season.

The swine flu vaccine was 97% effective overall in triggering a protective antibody level in a clinical trial, 93% in the elderly. In real life, don’t count on numbers this good, maybe 90%. The seasonal flu vaccine is only 60-80% effective and even lower for elderly (as low as 30%). Herd immunity is very important for seasonal flu. Elderly seem to have some natural immunity to swine flu, and this may be due to the fact that variations of the 1918 H1N1 were in wide circulation until the 1957 pandemic of H2N2. Seasonal H1N1 disappeared until 1977, and ironically, may have reappeared due to accidental lab release. Surprisingly and dishearteningly, young and healthy people and pregnant women seem to be dying from swine flu, which is different from seasonal flu which mostly just kills elderly, immunocompromised (i.e. weakened immune systems), the very young, and those with serious underlying medical conditions (notably heart, lung, and dialysis patients).

A nice source of the latest statistics on the extent of pandemic influenza is http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/ – note the time lag between the dates data are available for and the current date.

There is a Japanese study showing influenza vaccine saves lives. I include this because it demonstrates what happened when the shot was mandatory for school children, and then deaths increased after the shot was made optional. Also, there are no U.S. politics, drug companies, or conspiracies involved. http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/344/12/889

washyourhands1Hygiene is the best way to avoid getting influenza (seasonal or swine). I’d suggest using a paper towel to touch faucets and doors in public places and avoiding shaking hands (just tell a white lie that you’re coming down with something, and this awkward impolite moment turns into a “thank you for being concerned about my health” moment). Grocery carts and groceries others (i.e. other customers, stockers, and the cashier) have touched are also sources of infection. Also, avoid touching your eyes/nose/mouth with unwashed hands. Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Disinfectant wipes are convenient and effective in situations where hand washing is impractical. Antimicrobial soap is not necessary.

Patients who decide to get the swine and / or seasonal flu shots should be aware that currently about 99% of flu cases are swine flu (a type of influenza A abbreviated as S-OIV H1N1 = swine-origin influenza virus H1N1). As we move into winter, we might see more seasonal flu strains (a different H1N1 influenza A, H3N2 influenza A, and influenza B). But, as per past pandemics, the new strain tends to dominate and replace the old strains in circulation in the community. Therefore, we could very well see that most cases this fall / winter are swine flu, and thus the swine flu vaccine might be more important to get than the regular seasonal influenza vaccine.

A study reported to me on 10/7/09 via email said that the seasonal flu vaccine might give partial protection against swine flu. An unpublished report from Canada shows the opposite effect – that one vaccine weakens the benefit of the other vaccine by half. In light of this uncertainty, some infectious disease specialists have recommended a 2 week delay between the vaccines. Practically speaking, this phenomenon will have already occurred in many situations due to the delays in receiving the swine flu vaccine from its foreign manufacturers.

The facts on the 1976 “swine flu” vaccine debacle (i.e. there was no pandemic, false alarm, different from 2009): 532 people got Guillain-Barre out of 40 million vaccinations, and of those, 32 people died. http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/361/3/279 This year’s swine flu is very different from the strain in 1976. Since then, flu vaccines are associated with (not necessarily cause and effect) a 1 in 100,000 to 1,000,000 chance of getting Guillain-Barre. This is smaller than the chance of death from swine flu.

Most swine flu shots, and seasonal flu shots from multi-dose vials, have 25 micrograms (0.025 milligrams) of mercury in the form of thimerosal (contains ethyl mercury) as a preservative. The half life of ethyl mercury is 7 – 10 days, so it is out of your system within a few weeks (4 half lives). I believe it is safe according to research studies. Opponents of my view cannot cite any clinical study showing it to be unsafe. Here is one study showing that it is safe: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/357/13/1281 Due to public outcry, thimerosal has not been present in routine childhood vaccines since 2001 (some non-routine childhood shots do have thimerosal). The quantity of mercury is comparable to what we get from our environment (doesn’t necessarily make it O.K.) or food (e.g. a can of tuna).


The nasal swine flu vaccine has no mercury, but only a limited number of doses will be available. It is indicated in non-pregnant healthy people age 2-49. I am unaware of any reports of serious adverse reactions with the seasonal version of this vaccine in prior years or the new pandemic H1N1 nasal vaccine. There are some restrictions because it is a live-attenuated virus. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/nasalspray.htm

Some anti-vaccine people are propagandizing the fact that the State of Washington suspended its strict law on legal limits for mercury content of vaccines. The 0.5 microgram limit was the equivalent of banning all vaccines with thimerosal. Some seasonal flu and most swine flu vaccines have 25 micrograms of mercury, thus lifting the ban was the equivalent of making those shots legal in Washington (they are legal in the other 49 states). Instead of being part of a “government conspiracy,” the State of Washington was actually getting in line with all the other 49 states, putting the decision whether or not to get the vaccine back in the hands of patients and their physicians. http://www.doh.wa.gov/cfh/Immunize/documents/parentinfo5305.pdf and http://www.vaccinesafety.edu/thi-table.htm.

I realize there are certain people that won’t believe medical facts because they don’t trust the government, pharmaceutical companies, CDC, WHO, doctors, the health system in general, etc. The current health care reform debate is fueling a lot of the rhetoric. The virus could care less about one’s personal politics. It’s a free country. Shots are not mandatory. And even if you get influenza you’ve got a 99.9-99.99+% chance of coming out fine. The swine flu will rarely kill humans, and the vaccine will have even fewer serious adverse reactions – for those few individuals, the flu season will be tragic. A non-medical analogy to this debate is playing the lottery – you cannot expect to win, but the investment is minimal when purchasing one ticket. Patients should make informed decisions about their health care based on unbiased facts, and I have tried my best to present what I feel to be relevant. Patients also should consult with their personal physicians to discuss their concerns. Regardless, I think we all should hope that the flu season is not too severe, and that the vaccine causes minimal problems.

Article printed with the permission of the author

H1N1 Flu Vaccine: The CDC Gets it Right

You and I, right now, are living in the middle of a pandemic.   It’s in the news, but unless you are paying close attention above the noise coming out of Washington, D.C. on the East Coast, the media frenzy over Michael Jackson’s death on the West, or you folks in the middle of the country dodging humongous thunder storms, it may not be much on your personal radar.

But it should be.  Not at a Hollywood plague & panic mode, by any means, but H1N1 is a nasty virus.  As a chaplain, I have worked with several patients and their families who are being treated for H1N1.  Two were in our intensive care unit.  Both of these patients had developed pneumonia, and one was a pregnant woman (who had to be delivered early to save both her life and the baby’s).

In my 13 years as a chaplain, and having seen hundreds of cases of pneumonia, I was astonished–and I truly mean astonished–at how sick those two patients were (they both continue to recover. The infant did not have the virus.).   I can also say, that our patients generally match the age distribution and other physical conditions of those the Centers for Disease Control say are most at risk.

So, what’s a body to do?  First, go to http://www.flu.gov and check out the most current recommendations.  What prompted this post was this week’s announcemnt by the CDC of the priority list for who should get the vaccine when it becomes available.  Here is the list:

On July 29, 2009, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)—an advisory committee to CDC—recommended that novel H1N1 flu vaccine be made available first to the following five groups (News Release):

Pregnant women

Health care workers and emergency medical responders

People caring for infants under 6 months of age

Children and young adults from 6 months to 24 years

People aged 25 to 64 years with underlying medical conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes)

Combined, these groups would equal approximately 159 million individuals.

You’ll see this is not the typical order for vaccination priorities, which is the elderly, people with certain other conditions that make them more susceptible, etc.  The reason for the change is very straightforward:  H1N1 infects a different set of demographics than the usual winter time influenzas.

This is where you need to pay attention.  H1N1 has idiosyncrises that we are not used to.   And the way it is spreading is one of those.  The CDC has provided a map so you can look at where the flu is having the most impact:

US Map H1N1 Flu Distribution 31Jul09.  Source: CDC

US Map H1N1 Flu Distribution 31Jul09. Source: CDC

Here is how to recognize possible H1N1 symptoms, from the CDC’s Website:

Emergency Warning Signs

If you become ill and experience any of the following warning signs, seek emergency medical care.

In children, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

* Fast breathing or trouble breathing

* Bluish or gray skin color

* Not drinking enough fluids

* Severe or persistent vomiting

* Not waking up or not interacting

* Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held

* Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

In adults, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

* Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

* Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen

* Sudden dizziness

* Confusion

* Severe or persistent vomiting

* Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Protect Yourself, Your Family, and Community

* Stay informed. Health officials will provide additional information as it becomes available. Visit the CDC H1N1 Flu website.

* Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

* Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.

* Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.

* Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

* If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home for 7 days after your symptoms begin or until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours, whichever is longer, except to seek medical care or for other necessities. Keep away from other household members as much as possible. This is to keep you from infecting others and spreading the virus further.

* If you are sick and sharing a common space with other household members in your home, wear a facemask, if available and tolerable, to help prevent spreading the virus to others. For more information, see the Interim Recommendations for Facemask and Respirator Use.

* Learn more about how to take care of someone who is ill in “Taking Care of a Sick Person in Your Home”

* Follow public health advice regarding school closures, avoiding crowds, and other social distancing measures.

* If you don’t have one yet, consider developing a family emergency plan as a precaution. This should include storing a supply of extra food, medicines, and other essential supplies. Further information can be found in the “Flu Planning ChecklistExternal Web Site Policy.

Related Media: YouTube: Symptoms of H1N1 (Swine Flu)


(Sorry, I couldn’t seem to get this video to embed.  Just click on the link to view it.)

The take home on this is simple: if you are in one of the groups designated as high risk for H1N1, get vaccinated as soon as possible when the shots become available.  If you aren’t in those first groups, don’t get your dander up.  The people who are in the high risk categories really are in danger of getting critically ill if they contract H1N1.  There will be vaccine available for you, too.

But keep in mind, even if you fall into the usual categories a for seasonal flu shot, the H1N2 vaccine will not replace your yearly dose.  For most of us, we’re going to be getting poked twice, just not all at the same time.

One last thing.  Go wash your hands.

Wash 'em Hand Washing Image: CDC

Wash 'em Hand Washing Image: CDC

Swine Flu: The Most Effective Way to Protect Yourself

This post has been redacted and censored to comply with my employer’s Social Media Policy as of Nov. 1, 2010.  All references to my place of work and the system it is part of, as well as photos have been removed.  This action appears to be only recourse I have to preserve my Constitutional rights to free speech and the free expression of my views on Extreme Thinkover.


This Information about protecting yourself from Swine Flu was issued today by Employee Health at Censored by Corporate Social Media Policy .  These are the guidelines we are following as hospital staff–I urge all my readers to take to the same precautions:

Prevention is the best defense against infection. Protect yourself by following good health habits such as:

· Frequent hand washing with soap and water or use of alcohol-based hand gel.

· When you cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or use your sleeve (if you don’t have a tissue). Throw used tissue in trash and wash your hands.

· Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

· Avoid close contact with people who are sick or keep your distance from other people when you are sick.

· DO NOT GO TO WORK IF YOU ARE SICK. Consider your co-workers. Contact your health care provider.

Symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to the symptoms of seasonal flu in humans and may include:

* Fever (greater than 100.4ºF)
* Sore throat
* Cough
* Stuffy nose
* Chills
* Headache and body aches
* Fatigue

Stay well!

P.S.: Don’t go out an buy a box of dust, respirator, or even medical facemasks.  They will NOT protect you.  The Centers for Disease Control is currently recommending the use of the above precautions rather than a facemask.  Click here for the link.  Currently the only approved facemask for respiratory illnesses is the “N-95,” which is available only to professional health care personnel and must also be correctly fitted to be effective.  If the CDC determines the Swine Flu is spread through the air, they will issue appropriate guidelines at that time.