We’ve been hearing a lot about the new H1N1 (“swine”) flu which is moving quickly around the globe. It’s reasonably likely to be declared “pandemic” in the next few days. Here on the ground, it’s almost like having a second flu season. Normally by this time of year, seasonal flu is sporadic to absent and at the walk-in clinic we see the usual assortment of colds, strep throats, poison ivy, and ankle sprains. Instead, we’ve had all of that layered on top of a steady trickle of flu.
Each colored line represents flu-like illnesses reported to the CDC. The blue and green lines (last season and the season before) have the usual waxing and waning, so that by week 20 (the end of May), the number of reported cases is clearly headed toward its nadir. Not so with the red line, which represents the current season. It’s starting to head up again. Looking closely at some of the details of actual tested samples shows that many of these illnesses are the usual seasonal flu strains, indicating increased reporting rather than (or in addition to) increased incidence. However, many of the cases (about a third of tested cases) are the novel H1N1 strain. In fact, most of the strains I’ve run tests on are not the seasonal flu, so it will be interesting to see what happens to this graph as the weeks go on.
For whatever reason, influenza rates decrease in the summer months, so new strain or no, we’re likely to see the curve head down eventually, at least in this hemisphere (flu season is “opposite” on the other side of the equator).
Still, we’re keeping quite busy here on the front line of medicine, with waiting rooms full of masked, miserable folks. Usually, there is a sudden onset of high fevers (higher than 102), chills, muscle aches, cough, runny nose, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. It’s really not fun. This is not a time to tough it out and go to work despite your flu-like illness. Stay home, drink lots of fluids, and call your doctor.