Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Pinellas County Health Department, answers some of the most common questions about swine flu and immunizations.
What's the difference between H1N1 (swine) flu and seasonal flu? How can I tell if I have one or the other?
Influenza symptoms are the same, regardless of whether they're a result of H1N1 (swine) flu or seasonal flu. When you have a sore throat, difficulty breathing, body aches, congestion, a fever and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, you're most likely suffering from influenza. Because we don't specifically test for swine flu, influenza-like illnesses circulating before the seasonal flu season hits its stride early in 2010 are assumed to be swine flu. Each has a separate vaccine because H1N1 is a new strain of flu. We recommend both vaccines for children and adults.
I'm seven months pregnant and I'm waiting for the swine flu vaccine, but I've been told that I can't get the first doses that are arriving in Pinellas. Why?
The first doses of H1N1 vaccine in Florida will be the intranasal FluMist that is not recommended for several groups that include pregnant women. It's made with a weakened live virus instead of the "killed" virus in the shot injected via a needle. FluMist is not recommended for pregnant women, children younger than 2, adults older than 49 and anyone with a compromised immune system. Pregnant women should wait until the single-dose flu shots made without the preservative thimerosal arrive.
Why has the swine flu vaccine been rushed into production? I'm concerned that it hasn't been tested enough.
The flu vaccine testing and manufacturing period for the H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine has been the same as that of the seasonal flu vaccine that millions of people receive each year. The H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine is not a new product; it's a flu vaccine that protects from the H1N1 virus, just as each year's seasonal flu vaccine protects a person against a particular strain of influenza circulating at that time.
How come senior citizens aren't a priority group for swine flu vaccines?
Senior citizens seem to have more immunity from H1N1 than younger people and children. We're not certain why, but one theory is that persons born before 1957 may have been exposed to a type of swine flu at some point in their lives from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Although senior citizens are at the top of the list for seasonal flu vaccines, other groups in the community — pregnant women, children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years, and health care providers — are our target groups for the first available H1N1 vaccines.
What if I don't want to get this vaccine?
The H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines are strictly voluntary and no one will be forced to get immunized. The community should understand that H1N1 has caused grave illnesses and deaths. In Pinellas, the most recent death was a 39-year-old male who had no other known health conditions. An unusual number of pregnant women, young people and children have died from H1N1 already. Although health officials will recommend immunization, there has never been a plan to immunize anyone by force.
Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Pinellas County Health Department since 2006, is a pediatrician, mother and grandmother. Please send flu questions to PinellasH1N1@doh.state.fl.us for possible inclusion in a future column. Sorry, but personal replies are not possible.