Doctor David Topham is a top flu researcher who says the novel H1N1 influenza, formerly called the swine flu, demands our attention. "Anytime a new pathogen gets introduced to the human population, it's going to have an enhanced ability to spread from person to person and establish itself in that population, and that's what these viruses do," says Dr. Topham.
And spread it will. Fellow flu colleague, Doctor John Treanor, says most of us haven't been exposed to the H1 part of this novel virus.
"In the absence of an effective vaccine for the novel virus, we would see very high rates of infection, rather than the usual, which is that maybe 10 percent of people during a normal flu season might catch the flu. You might see 40 percent of people during flu season with novel viruses catch the flu," says Dr. Topham.
Over the summer, infection rates slowed, but they could rev up again soon. In fact, he says we can expect the flu season to correspond with the new school year - which is already playing out in several schools across the U.S., including the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Schools present a unique situation. Young people are at close quarters, and seem to be quite susceptible to this virus. "It's unusual in that it's made young adults, who are typically fairly resistant to influenza, it's made them relatively ill," says Dr. Topham.
Older folks, who are typically at-risk for seasonal flu, seem to have some resistance to the new type. Researchers are trying to understand that variable.
Of course, one question has people worried: Will this new flu get more deadly? Doctors say the questions isn't really "when"? Instead, it's a question of whether it will ever mutate into a more deadly form. It could just as easily mutate into a less deadly form."
To protect yourself, wash your hands frequently. If you smoke, quit. If you're ill, stay home. And if you can get the H1-N1 vaccine, do so. You'll also be at risk for the seasonal flu, too. However, there's a possibility that in the future, this novel flu will replace the current strains. "What you'd expect if we were talking about a traditional pandemic, would be that this new virus would come, the old viruses would go away, and then for many years in the future that the new virus would be the seasonal flu virus," says Dr. Treanor.
The H1-N1 vaccine will be given in two separate doses and to priority populations: pregnant women, children, and young adults.