As with any new viruses, there is confusion and sometimes fear generated by well meaning people, such as the media. This list will assist in clarifying some issues for EMS providers about the H1N1 virus, commonly called swine flu.
- We're in preparation mode -- not emergency mode -- on this illness.
- This is a new virus that is a combination of swine, human and bird genetic components.
- The virus is spread the same way as seasonal flu: via respiratory droplets expelled when a person coughs and sneezes.
- This is a large-particle virus and requires close contact for transmission. Droplets do not remain suspended in the air and travel only a short distance in the air (less than or equal to 1 meter, or 3-6 feet).
- As with any respiratory illness, place a surgical mask on the patient to contain secretions.
- It's unusual that this virus has appeared at the end of the normal flu season. It may spike and then drop off, because influenza is seasonal (the influenza virus does not like summer temperatures.) This version may appear in greater numbers in the fall, but we could have a vaccine by then.
- This virus is susceptible to Tamiflu and Relenza, which are the antivirals in our national stockpile program. The Food & Drug Administration released these on April 27, 2009for use if needed.
- EMS personnel should be familiar with state pandemic plans. The CDC only issues broad guidelines and refers EMS to state and local plans, per National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
- Screen all persons with respiratory symptoms for a travel history, such as recent travel to Mexico. Stay home if you're ill. Work restrictions guidelines should be in place in your department for general influenza illness.
- Interim guidelines are not cast in stone; they will change.
Keep this all in a proper perspective. Each year, there are between 26,000 and 36,000 deaths in the U.S. from seasonal flu.
Katherine West, BSN, MSEd, CIC, is an infection control consultant with Infection Control/Emerging Concepts Inc. and a JEMS editorial board member.
Editor's Note: First responders are urged to go to the CDC Web site for further information. The following sites have more information on this influenza virus.
- JEMS.com exlusive article:"Protect Yourself and Your Patients from Swine Flu"
- Official swine flu updates from the CDC
- Official swine flu updates from the WHO
- JEMS Connect discussion on swine flu
- Harvard Health Publications."Swine Flu: How to understand your risk and protect your health."
- IAEMSC Recommended Planning for Pandemic Influenza Readiness
- IAEMSC Pandemic Flu Reference Sheet
- IAFC Guidance on Swine Flu