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H1N1 – A seriously interesting virus

March 12, 2010

H1N1 has been all the rage in the press for the last year or so, as it reached “pandemic” status, worldwide.  Although H1N1 does, indeed, qualify as a pandemic in terms of its spread, it has not garnered much in the way of reputation for lethality.

The typical seasonal influenza bug that runs across this country every winter causes between 25,000 and 35,000 deaths every year, in the US alone.  A huge number.  These deaths are largely infants, chronically ill people or the elderly.  H1N1, even globally, has not approached these numbers.  The big difference between seasonal Influenza and H1N1?

H1N1 attacks, and sometimes kills, young healthy people.

Shockingly, H1N1 has largely left the elderly and infirm alone.  They rarely get sick with the virus, and are rarely very sick with it when does strike them!  How can this be?

Theories are many.  Answers are few.

The first, and most logical, theory is that people of a certain age (and older) have already been exposed to a virus very similar to H1N1, sometime in the past, and therefore have some immunity against it.  Or perhaps a previous influenza vaccine is granting cross immunity to H1N1.  This is a very popular theory, and very likely the right one.

Another possibility, and much more interesting to medical epidemiologists, is that the vaccine for Smallpox may be granting some immunity to people.  We vaccinated against Smallpox until about 1967, when it was determined the virus had been eradicated.  If this theory is true, then anyone age 43 or older should have some immunity to H1N1 and anyone younger would have none at all.  Hard to prove, but a very interesting theory!

Another possibility may just be that the immunological response to an infection with H1N1 may be overpowerful in young, healthy people with powerful immune systems.  Their own immune system response may be making them sicker than the illness itself.  We see this in other illnesses, so it’s not a completely impossible notion.

Whatever the cause, these are the reasons why the H1N1 Vaccine is recommended for people age 23 and YOUNGER.  These are the individuals most likely to have a life-threatening infection with H1N1.

When you hear a recommendation from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), it is important to heed it.  These are people who know far more about infectious diseases and vaccines than any of us could learn in a lifetime.  They have thoughtfully balanced the risks of the illness and the risks of the vaccines and come up with a recommendation.  When I hear of people who are avoiding vaccinating their children against H1N1, for fear of the vaccine, I’m sure the good folks at the CDC are cringing.  I’m sure the cringe turns to a cry for every child death that could have been avoided with vaccination.

H1N1 may be fading, but these pandemic viruses have been known to return a 2nd or even third time.  Sometimes they are even more powerful the 2nd time.

Listen to the experts, that’s why we have them and why we call them “experts”!

Good Health!

Dr Mike


From → Medical Topics

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