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Written by Dr.Swati Rajagopal

As swine flu cases continue to rise across cities, a doctor tells us how serious the H1N1 flu virus can be, what is being done to diagnose the disease and what people can do to prevent getting the infection.

Key Highlights

  • People infected by the H1N1 flu virus will show symptoms similar to those of most influenza infections
  • Swine flu can cause serious infections like pneumonia, respiratory distress and death
  • RT-PCR is the method adopted by laboratories and is the recommended test to check for swine flu

New Delhi: The H1N1 swine flu, a subtype of influenza A virus which infects the respiratory tract of the host, has created panic among people across the world. The viruses that cause swine flu may mutate and can spread easily among humans. Currently, many states across the country, including Maharashtra, are seeing a sharp rise in the number of people suffering from H1N1 swine flu. So far, at least 191 people have succumbed to the H1N1 virus and some 1,772 people have tested positive for the virus in Maharashtra this year. The deadly virus has also claimed the life of an 18-year-old man who hailed from Kshetrigao village in Imphal East district, Manipur. According to Shashikumar Mangang, additional director public health service, the youth died on July 15 morning at Dispur Hospital, Guwahati.

People infected by the H1N1 flu virus will show symptoms similar to those of most influenza infections such as fever, headache, cough, nasal secretions, sore throat, body aches and fatigue, etc. As swine flu cases continue to rise in many cities like Mumbai, Dr Swati Rajagopal, Consultant, Infectious Disease & Travel Medicine, Aster CMI Hospital, Bangalore, in an Exclusive Interview with Salome Phelamei of Times Now Digital, tells us how serious the H1N1 flu virus can be and what is being tested to diagnose the disease and many more. Below are the excerpts from the Interview.

Salome: How dangerous is the H1N1 flu virus?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: H1N1 influenza A virus is also known as swine flu. Like the regular seasonal flu, swine flu can cause serious infections like pneumonia (chest infections), respiratory distress and death. Patients with poorly controlled diabetes, asthma and COPD are more susceptible to complications from swine flu.

Salome: Does a person with flu-like symptoms need to get tested for swine flu?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: It is very difficult to differentiate between seasonal flu and swine flu. However, routine testing is not advocated and testing for swine flu is not needed for all patients who display the signs and symptoms of influenza.

Therefore, it is important to inform your doctor if you think that there are flu-like symptoms. The doctor will decide on the tests and treatment required based on the category of symptoms, paying particular attention to the cases of patients who are exceptionally sick with flu, already admitted in the hospital with suspected influenza, chronically ill patients, immunosuppressed individuals like post-transplant patients, HIV infected patients, elderly or a child less than 2 years of age. The Ministry of Health has formulated strict guidelines on the classification of patients, treatment and testing strategies.

Salome: What are the tests involved in diagnosing H1N1 flu?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: RT-PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is the method adopted by laboratories and is the recommended test to check for swine flu. The test can detect  H1N1 influenza A virus as well as subtypes of the virus like H3N2 influenza. Testing for swine flu involves respiratory isolates such as nasopharyngeal swabs, nasal aspirates and throat swabs. It is important that reports are interpreted by clinicians because these assays have high sensitivity and factors such as the timing of the respiratory sample, type of sample, handling of the sample and transport time to the laboratory can affect the results of the test. Sometimes, a negative molecular assay RT-PCR may not necessarily mean that the swine flu virus is absent.

Salome: How accurate is swine flu lab testing? What does a positive/negative result mean?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: If the clinician interprets the test results -

A positive result indicates the detection of viral RNA in the sample test, but does not necessarily mean that the infectious virus is present or patient is contagious.

A negative result means there is no evidence of influenza viral RNA in the sample.

Further treatment is based on clinical condition and the health care providers' interpretation of the result.

Salome: Does swine flu test pose any risk to patients' health?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: The test is safe and has no health risk to the patient.

Salome: What to do if someone in the family has been diagnosed with swine flu!

Dr Swati Rajagopal: Avoid being face-to-face with a person who is sick with swine flu. Reducing the contact time will reduce the possibility of contracting the infection. A sick person with cough should follow appropriate cough etiquette (like using a mask or hankerchief to avoid the spread of infection). Washing hands with soap and water periodically, especially after handing the patient will reduce the possibility of acquiring the infection.

Salome: How effective are antivirals for swine flu?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: Drugs like oseltamivir are used to treat swine flu. They work best when given within 48 hours of the onset of flu-like symptoms. After 48 hours, it has modest benefits in reducing the duration of symptoms and viral shedding. 

Salome: How long does it take for a person to fully recover from swine flu?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: In the most uncomplicated cases of swine flu - symptoms start resolving in 5-7 days time, however recovery may take as long as two weeks.

Salome: Is there a way to prevent swine flu?

Dr Swati Rajagopal: The best way to prevent or reduce the severity of swine flu is to encourage vaccination. People at high-risk groups should be encouraged to vaccinate themselves to reduce complications of swine flu.

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