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Vol. LXI, No. 10
May 15, 2009

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NIH Responds to H1N1 Flu Outbreak

On the front page...

All agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH among them, are working to investigate, monitor and slow the spread of the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, as well as to provide information to public health officials, health care providers and citizens.

The outbreak is caused by a new flu virus to which most people will not have immunity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization confirm a growing number of human infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. and internationally.

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci recently testified at several Capitol Hill hearings regarding NIH’s role in the outbreak. He said that while the initial course of developing a vaccine has begun, the process will take time.

Meanwhile, NIAID and the Clinical Center are intensely involved in coordinating NIH’s response effort. The NIAID home page is providing updates.


“Part of the good news,” says Dr. Carole Heilman, director of NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, “is that there’s a tremendous amount of collaboration among the institutes and centers.”

As CDC and other health officials track the disease, genetic sequences from patients affected by the current flu strain are being submitted to the NIH GenBank’s Influenza Virus Resource, where “Dr. David Lipman [of NCBI] has a robust flu database,” says Heilman.
Gary Peck of the Travel Management Branch, ORS, demonstrates newly installed hand sanitizer dispensers outside Bldg. 31’s C-wing elevators.

Gary Peck of the Travel Management Branch, ORS, demonstrates newly installed hand sanitizer dispensers outside Bldg. 31’s C-wing elevators.

Thanks to investments in pandemic preparedness for avian flu and SARS as well as in biodefense, “we have a lot of systems in play here,” she adds. “Things are moving really rapidly, and not just at NIH.”

Although there is no vaccine available right now to protect against the current outbreak, arming yourself with information can be helpful. So be prepared; follow NIH guidelines and your own IC’s pandemic plans.

H1N1 flu is an infectious respiratory disease normally occurring in pigs, but human infections do happen. The current outbreak of disease in humans is caused by a novel, or new, virus for which we haven’t had time to develop natural immunity. This particular bug can be passed from human to human and scientists are trying to discover just how easily that happens.

“This influenza virus is remarkably adaptive,” says Heilman. A subtype of the influenza A virus, it’s a reassortment of genetic material from viruses that cause swine flu and human flu.

Signs and symptoms of H1N1 flu are similar to regular (seasonal) human flu, including fever, cough, sore throat and body aches. Complications may include pneumonia and respiratory failure.

You catch H1N1 flu the same way you catch seasonal flu or colds. Launched by a sneeze or cough, the virus travels on droplets.

Everyday preventive actions can be effective. Cover sneezes and coughs with a tissue or the crook of your elbow. The bug can survive for a couple of hours on environmental surfaces, so wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or sanitize with alcohol- based hand cleaner. (Flyers detailing these procedures have become ubiquitous on campus in recent days.) Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth. Try to avoid those with flu. They may be contagious a day before symptoms develop and 7 or more days after becoming sick. Get enough sleep and exercise, manage stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat right.

If you get sick, stay home. If you know you have been exposed, ask your doctor about the antiviral drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, which may make the course of the illness milder. Go to the hospital if you experience severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing.

Note that eating pork or pork products does not cause H1N1 influenza.

CDC recommends that U.S. travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico, due to the severity of the outbreak.

And don’t panic. “We have systems in place,” says Heilman, “that are ready to adapt to emergent needs and allow us to respond to potential epidemics. One of NIAID’s unique qualities is that we are prepared to respond to outbreaks such as this one. Our investigators are rising to the task.”

The Clinical Center is preparing for all possibilities and is prepared to deploy a set of enhanced infection prevention and control steps, according to Dr. David Henderson, CC deputy director for clinical care. The hospital will operate slightly differently from other ICs; day-to-day management decisions will be based on patient care and patient safety requirements.

Meanwhile, “if and when it hits our area,” Henderson says, “if people are getting very sick, obviously they should get in touch with their doctors. But if people are mildly ill, then stay put and weather it out. If you can manage it, stay home; try to segregate yourself within the household.

“Hand hygiene is astoundingly important in terminating these epidemics,” he continues. “It means not behaving the way we often do.” For everyday office use, “an alcohol-based hand cleaner is highly effective against these kinds of viruses.” NIHRecord Icon

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