April 30th, 2009
11:29 AM ET

Dr. Webby answers your H1N1 (Swine Flu) questions

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more about H1N1 virus (also known as Swine Flu) on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

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Richard J. Webby, Ph.D.
Associate Member, Infectious Diseases Department
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital


1. Despite dozens of confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S. and hundreds of suspected ones, at this time health officials are only looking in to one possible death resulting from the swine strain. What do you think accounts for the reports we’re hearing from Mexico of far higher Swine Flu fatality rates?

ANSWER: There are a number of possibilities from poorer health care to differences in the virus. In my opinion the most likely reason is that there is no difference and there has simply been many more cases in Mexico. For example, let’s just hypothetically assume that this virus has 0.1 PERCENT mortality, i.e., one of every thousand people infected dies. It is unlikely that any country outside of Mexico has had this many cases; therefore, you would not expect to see deaths. As cases increase in other countries, we might expect to start to see deaths associated with this virus.

2. So far the impact of swine flu has seemed to cause no greater detriment than the normal influenza to the people with confirmed cases in the U.S. Getting the flu is never pleasant, but at this point why should people be more concerned about contacting the swine flu than any other flu?

ANSWER: The major reason we should be a little more concerned with this virus is that most people likely have little to no immunity to it. Therefore they are more likely to be infected. We are also pretty inexperienced with pandemic influenza, and we really don’t know what this virus is going to do as it spreads (or even if it will continue to spread).

3. Is there a scenario that the way we’ve seen the swine flu behave in the U.S. so far is simply the tip of a far more dangerous ice berg?

ANSWER: I am not sure we are at a tip of an iceberg that’s already here (Mexico maybe). What is potentially more worrying is we don’t know what this virus will do if it does grow into an iceberg.

4. Right now officials seem to keep reiterating that we have to wait and see what happens. When can we exhale (are we talking weeks? Months? Years?)

ANSWER: The coming week(s) will reveal much about what this virus is going to do and, if it spreads, what we should expect in terms of disease.

5. Anything else you want to stress Dr. Webby?

ANSWER: Just the fact that, although we have not seen this particular combination of genes in the same virus, the two parents of this virus are well known and each in their own right are not particularly lethal strains. Although we don’t really understand influenza virus virulence (ability to cause disease), this is a little reassuring.

Editor's Note: The answers are from Richard J. Webby, Ph.D., associate member in the Infectious Diseases department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Dr. Webby is also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Public Health
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Leesi

    One topic I've not heard addressed is whether H1N1 is communicable between animal species and then to humans. For instance, could a dog contract it at the neighbor's pig farm and then carry it home to its owners? I realize this sounds implausible, but I am curious.

    April 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
  2. jane MI

    Do you think a person that's been immunized for influenza yearly, and I believe in the most recent years using a combination of strains , type A and/or B, have some sort of immunity/decreased severity of symptoms of H1N1? ...I wonder if in the U.S a higher % of people have been immunized v.s. Mexico and if that may be a factor w/current decreased severity of sxs in the U.S.

    Or how about people that have had influenza a few times in the past?

    What is known on the length of time H1N1 is communicable on surfaces?

    April 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm |
  3. joanne

    Why doesn't the CDC consider at home swine flu swab testing/swabbing and send the at home test directly to the labroratory which would track the swine flu and also decrease overload in the doctor's office and help to eliminate spread of flu in the public waiting rooms. We have at home pregnancy testing and other at home testing for diseases, why not the at home swine flu test?

    April 30, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  4. Candyce

    What financial safeguards, if any, are in place for the working parents of those children who have been asked to stay at home because their schools have been shut down?

    April 30, 2009 at 12:46 pm |
  5. Juanita, Elko NV

    So like the regular flu we've been dealing with for years, the young and the seniors would be greatly affected or now the threat of the H1N1 is everyone take care?

    April 30, 2009 at 12:15 pm |
  6. Heather,ca

    I just wonder when and how long it will take Mexico and our health officials to figure out how that child in Mexico"patient 0" got it and how he was able to spread it and so on. Yes containment is key but following the trail to connect the dots helps to.

    April 30, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  7. Yonathan Ayalew

    If a person has previously been exposed to the H1 virus (influenza), do they have ANY immunity towards the H1N1 virus (swine flu)?

    April 30, 2009 at 11:55 am |
  8. Linda Bell

    Will the people who get H1N1 now and get better develope antibodies that could protect them from the virus if it comes back in the fall and winter?

    April 30, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  9. Celia

    what kind of precautions should those people who have a spouse in the healthcare profession, (like my husband-nurse in ER) who come into contact with all sorts of patients,then come home to their families, especially with small children?

    April 30, 2009 at 11:54 am |