H1N1 (Swine Flu) & H5N1 (Bird Flu)

What is H1N1?

According to the CDC, “2009 H1N1 (referred to as “swine flu” early on) is a new influenza virus causing illness in people. This new virus was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009. This virus is spreading from person-to-person worldwide, probably in much the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread. On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) signaled that a pandemic of 2009 H1N1 flu was underway.This virus was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes. Scientists call this a “quadruple reassortant” virus. Human infections with the new H1N1 virus are ongoing in the United States. Most people who have become ill with this new virus have recovered without requiring medical treatment. CDC routinely works with states to collect, compile and analyze information about influenza, and has done the same for the new H1N1 virus since the beginning of the outbreak.”

What about H5N1?

Currently, the H5N1 virus is known to spread either by direct contact with the virus through excretions, airborne effluents or by consuming infected, uncooked bird or fowl. Most agree, should the H5N1 virus spread to the USA, poultry workers initially will be at highest risk. Again, the real concern is whether the disease will mutate in some form that is transmitted from one human to the next.

Public Health Officials fear that a pandemic will occur if a recent strain of the virus, which has killed one-half of the humans it has infected, mutates into a form that can be transmitted between people. So far, the virus has only infected humans who came into contact with contaminated birds. The strain (H5N1) has been found in 10 Asian countries, and has recently spread to Russia, Romania and Turkey. There are 15 strains of the avian flu virus, but the most virulent is one known as H5N1. It has sickened and killed countless millions of birds on the Eurasian Continent. In 1918, a virus killed about 2 percent of all the people it infected, leading to an estimated 20 to 40 million deaths. If that virus gains the ability/ mutates to easily transmit from human to human, it will be a disaster of unprecedented proportion. A lack of medical defenses worsens the situation. A recent study from the U.S. Government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that worldwide resistance to current influenza drugs has increased by 12 percent in the last decade. H5N1 is resistant to one of the two major classes of flu drugs, Amantadine, and scientists report signs in Asia it is learning to defy the other one, Tamiflu.

Once a person is infected, its impact on the lungs is severe. The symptoms basically start like any flu symptoms, but instead of subsiding over a period of time, it will go into the extreme of causing viral pneumonia. Worst of all, there is no known vaccine for the virus. As the virus progresses, symptoms include a high fever, serious respiratory complications, extreme body aches, multiple organ failure and often death in 72 hours. Due to migratory birds and global travelers, it has the potential to blanket the earth quickly.

What can a mask do?

In response to flu concerns of all types, the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have advised that wearing a mask is a “first line of defense” and advise that in a highly contagious environment, wearing any mask is far better than wearing no mask at all. Many Hospitals and Doctors are now requesting that patients (especially with low immune systems) and visitors wear flu mask. Many companies and schools, in an effort to reduce absences, are providing masks for employees/ students to wear during Cold and Flu season. In any type of flu transmission, inhaling germs is but one way to become infected. Contamination may occur simply by touching the corner of your eye, nose or lips with contaminated hands. Therefore, the wearing of any mask is primarily a “first line of defense” and should be combined with frequent hand washing and good hygiene.

Bird and swine flu mask considerations

The Center for Disease Control states that one of the primary means of flu contamination occurs from droplets that are generated when infected persons cough or sneeze and secondly by contamination of the things we touch. One of the primary purposes of any mask is to defend against airborne effluents, and all types of masks offer various degrees of effectiveness. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. The best known is the pre-formed respirator type worn primarily in industrial settings. Some Retailers claim this type of mask offers total protection as an N95 mask filters particles down to .3 microns. However viruses can be smaller than .3 microns. Even the most respected, reputable Manufacturer of this type mask will not state that their masks guarantee protection. Their disclaimer states that their N95 (.3 micron filtration) masks provide “limited” protection and help to protect against particulate droplets which carry avian flu. Further, they note that in order for this type of mask to perform effectively, it is essential that the mask fit tightly. However, while these masks are made to fit a majority of faces, one size does not fit all… sizes are available. Obviously, the masks you purchase “over the counter” at Hardware & Home Stores are sealed and generally they can not be “fitted”… and we know of no consumer retailer that offers this service. Should a pandemic flu outbreak occur, the CDC recommends wearing a mask rated to filter .3 microns. Unfortunately, this advisement does not provide a solution to the millions of individuals who suffer from respiratory problems… and who are advised by the manufacturer’s disclaimer not to wear this type of mask. Further, the most common complaint about this type of mask is that they typically become very hot and uncomfortable within a short period of time, thus resulting in the wearer’s tendency to remove/ adjust them frequently. This act of “handling the mask” dramatically increases the potential for contamination as the mask surface can easily contaminate the wearer’s hands which can then be transmitted to other parts of the body.

On Oct. 28th, 2008, results of a new study (www.news-medical.net) by the University of Michigan (Study called M-Flu) on 1,000 students during last years flu season concluded that mask use and alcohol-based hand sanitizers helped reduce flu-like illness rates from 10-50% over the study period. They concluded mask and hand hygiene may be effective for preventing a range of respiratory illnesses. Further, the researchers say in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as hand washing and masks may be as critical as pharmaceutical interventions…”.

Breathe Healthy nor any manufacturer should not claim that their partial face mask will fully protect you from the Bird Flu. There are simply too many variables including face shape, facial hair, movement, talking, adjusting, fit, flu mutation, viral size, viral form of transmission, etc. Obviously this does not apply to “fitted masks”, full face respirators, or medical devices worn by First Responders/Hazmat personnel. Further, it is yet to be known what form of mutation may occur that will allow the virus to spread rapidly from human to human. However, should a pandemic bird flu event occur, wearing a mask… any mask … is recommended over not wearing one. The CDC has also issued an advisement regarding the use of a “hand made” 4-layer fabric mask to provide emergency viral protection (see CDC web site). To reiterate, all partial face masks should be considered a “First Line of Defense” and not an assured means of protection. Equally important to mask consideration is infection that can occur from germs on your hands when touching your lips, inner nose or the corners of your eyes. It is important to stress that until the “Bird Flu” mutation occurs and more is known to the medical research community, any partial face mask manufacturer would be remiss in claiming that wearing their masks will provide total protection from the bird flu virus or any other undetermined flu mutations that may occur.

IMPORTANT – For all of the latest official information regarding the flu, please visit www.flu.gov