BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 01:05 UK

Is now a good time to get swine flu?

The Magazine answers...

No worse than a bad cold, say many of the Britons diagnosed with swine fever. So is it time for pig flu parties, to spread a mild version to build immunity?

Girl in mask at Bristol school
As this is a new strain of H1N1, we have no herd immunity

Dotted up and down the UK, Tamiflu has been dispensed to swine flu sufferers and those who may have been exposed to the highly contagious virus.

Some fret about taking the powerful antiviral drug - with its unpleasant side effects - and wonder if it might be wiser to catch swine flu now, priming our bodies to fight back if a more vicious form surfaces in winter.

"It would be quite a dangerous thing to do," says John Oxford, professor of virology at St Barts and the Royal London Hospitals, Queen Mary College.

"The scenario is that you get your mates together to spread swine flu. But then you take it home. Perhaps you take your dear old granny a cup of tea. She catches it. And dies."

You might recover fast, but those you expose might not
It's highly contagious, with the potential to infect many people
Anyone can develop serious complications

For this new version of H1N1 is highly contagious. Someone in rude health might recover quickly, albeit after enduring a fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. But they might pass it on to someone less able to fight it off - someone with diabetes, asthma or a weak immune system.

"A swine flu party would only work if you all then put yourselves in quarantine, or returned to your hermit hole, and did not touch anyone for at least 10 days."

Spreading germs

And while chickenpox or rubella parties were once popular as these illnesses are more straight-forward in childhood, swine flu is in a different league, warns Professor Oxford.

Boy with chicken pox
Chickenpox can be fatal - but that is rare

Although chickenpox can be fatal - that is rare. Dangerous complications can happen in a small number of healthy children or those with other chronic health problems.

People have died from swine flu and less is known about the current strain. Health authorities don't yet know enough about it to predict how it will affect individuals, how it will mutate and whether it will come back.

The effects have so far been less dramatic than initially feared - Mexico has scaled back its death toll from 159 to 56, and precautions such as school closures seem to have slowed its spread.

But it has "full pandemic potential", the World Health Organization says. A pandemic occurs when a new flu virus appears against which we have no immunity, resulting in outbreaks worldwide. Already cases have been confirmed in 30 countries, from Mexico to New Zealand, Canada to Thailand, Germany to the UK.

"What's reassuring is that the UK has stockpiles of antiviral drugs, enough to treat those who contract swine flu or who are exposed to it, and to protect frontline medical staff," says Professor Oxford.

"My daughter's a GP. If [swine flu] takes off and people come in to see her, she can take it prophylatically, one tablet a day for six weeks."

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

And although swine flu is a new virus, our bodies encounter other strains of H1N1 in the seasonal flu that does the rounds each year.

"We're not as vulnerable as we were in 1957's pandemic, which was a totally new virus. We've come into contact with distant relatives of swine flu before. If you catch it, your body will say 'I know this family, I've fought off its cousin, six times removed' and go to work to fight it off."

Prior exposure, through seasonal flu or swine flu vaccination when one becomes available, prompts the immune system to produce suitable antibodies to fight off the invader.

"And once exposed, you have lifetime memory of those antibodies and can produce them again," says Professor Oxford.



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