Explained: How the H1N1 outbreak changed the world

June 11 marks 12 years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared H1N1 influenza, a pandemic. Here is a lowdown of what this influenza spread taught us.

  • Updated On - 7:38 am, Sat, 12 June 21
Explained: How the H1N1 outbreak changed the world
Representative Image (Picture Credit: CDC)

The current Corona Virus pandemic often takes us back to a time when the country was battling the H1N1 pandemic. The disease was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the year 2009. What was this influenza and how did it really impact the world?

What is H1N1 and when was it declared a pandemic?

H1N1, also known as the Swine influenza, is essentially a respiratory ailment found in pigs and birds. It first originated in central Mexico. It was caused by the Type A influenza virus, which led to regular outbreaks in pigs. Humans first contracted the virus through the infected pigs. Later, it also spread to people who weren’t in the vicinity of sick pigs.

The first case in India was reported on May 16, 2009. As it spread aggressively, the WHO declared it a pandemic in the same year. By the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, between 1.51 lakh and 5.75 lakh people succumbed to the virus in its first year. It was particularly heavy on those who suffered from chronic illnesses.

The symptoms included cough, fever, sore throat, running nose, body ache, headache, chills, and fatigue.

It spread in the same way as a seasonal flu. If someone, who was a carrier of the virus sneezed or coughed, the virus spread in the air. If a person came in contact with such people or touched something that the infected person had touched, they contracted the disease.

How did H1N1 change the world?

The virus took an enormous toll on the world as lakhs succumbed to it. The situation was made worse by the fact that the less developed countries didn’t have access to good healthcare systems.

As it happens, the H1N1 was basically a dress rehearsal for the world, which would eventually witness a fierce pandemic in the future that would become famous as the Corona Virus pandemic. The countries across the globe hadn’t dealt with any pandemic till then barring the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the 1957 flu in Hong Kong.

The influenza taught the world that vaccines could be made in a short time and an epidemic could be controlled quickly if countries took preventive measures early on, which would essentially include shutting down economic activities.

There is only limited data available over the economic burnout that the countries had to go through then, although quite a number of studies were conducted.

Available vaccines and anti-virals

Influenza vaccines or flu shots are primarily the vaccines that fortify people against the influenza viruses. These vaccines consist of either weakened live virus or inactivated killed influenza virus, preventing the disease from taking roots. These vaccines were produced after the anti-virals were grown in chicken eggs. The vaccines provided strong immunity against influenza. The biggest beneficiaries of the vaccines were the young people.

Two types of influenza vaccines were available:

Trivalent vaccines, shots which had three strains; usually A/H1N1, A/H3N2, and B.

Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (the nasal spray), not recommended to pregnant women and children with immune deficiency diseases.

Two anti-viral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza were recommended by the CDC (the generic names of these medicines are oseltamivir and zanamivir).

The number of available treatment options for influenza has increased significantly over the years. During the 2009 pandemic, the influenza anti-viral medication, oseltamivir was used extensively.

In 2009 October, the US Federal Drugs Agency (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for IV Peramivir. In December 2014, IV Peramivir was given approval for early treatment of uncomplicated influenza in outpatients.

FDA approved the first generic version of oseltamivir in September 2017. In December 2018, FDA gave a go ahead to a new influenza anti-viral medication called oral baloxavir marboxil.

Why the H1N1 flu ceased to be a threat?

The swine flu eventually became an ordinary ailment for people who took precautions against the virus. But, several factors played a major role in the control of the disease. The RT-PCR test was conducted on a large scale. According to CDC, its ability to map the complete influenza virus genome improved exponentially.

People were sensitized about taking the necessary precautions such as washing hands regularly, social distancing and sanitizing living areas. These steps played a major role in delivering human beings from the virus and eventually, people learned to live with influenza.