Kids aren’t the only critters getting sick with swine flu; a ferret has come down with it, too. The pet's owners took their ferret to a vet in Portland, Ore., on October 5, and the ferret’s nose mucus tested positive for genetic markers for H1N1 flu. Scientists have known for a long time that ferrets can get human flu; in fact, they use ferrets in the laboratory to test flu treatments. But ferrets are also popular pets. In this case, first reported in the Oregonian, it sounds like the ferret got the flu from its owner. And it appears to be the first reported case of H1N1 flu traveling from people to animals.
That’s not all the animal flu news today. A pig at the Minnesota State Fair also tested positive for H1N1. Human and pig influenza viruses are very similar and can infect both species, but there’s no indication that the state-fair pig has infected any humans. (Here’s the federal Department of Agriculture's press release on the swine with swine flu.)
The sick pig and ferret remind us that flu isn't just a human disease. Birds get it, too, and the avian flu that’s been causing deaths in Asia has been spread by migratory birds, domestic ducks, and chickens, though there have been no infections of birds with either H1N1 or avian flu in the United States. The nation’s hog farmers are understandably worried that people will stop eating pork if H1N1 is infecting pigs. But the Department of Agriculture says humans cannot contract H1N1 from eating pork. The infection of one show hog in St. Paul doesn’t pose much of a threat to anyone, except perhaps its handlers. (Full disclosure: Long ago my grandfather was a hog judge at the Minnesota State Fair, and I’m very fond of swine, so my heart goes out to that sick piggy.)
But enough of sick pigs; this blog’s about kids, and kid health. Many parents are nervous about giving their children the H1N1 vaccine. I went ahead and got my child vaccinated for H1N1 last week. So far, she’s had no side effects or other problems. But I understand parents’ fears of a new vaccine and the hope that there might be other alternatives out there to protect your children. If you’re looking for flu-fighting alternatives online, though, be skeptical. Many of them are scams. The Food and Drug Administration’s searchable list of fraudulent H1N1 flu cures includes bogus vaccines, body washes, and hand sanitizers. And the Federal Trade Commission, in a letter to the popular natural-products website drweil.com, said the site had better quit saying that its Immune Support Formula, which is listed as containing the astragalus plant and polypore mushrooms, including reishi, “can help ward off colds and flu.” (The Dr. Weil website has taken down the pages referring to Immune Support Formula.) Astragalus has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, but there’s no evidence it works as a flu cure. Reishi has long been used as a tonic in Asia and has gotten a lot of attention from cancer patients and researchers in the United States. Studies have found that reishi has enough of an immune-modulating effect that it shouldn’t be used by patients taking immune-suppressing drugs. But again, there's no evidence that it will help ward off flu.
So, there’s no all-natural silver bullet for preventing the flu. Hand-washing helps, as does avoiding people who are sick. Not touching your face helps, since that transfers germs to the mouth and nose, but try telling that to a kid! Then there is the H1N1 flu vaccine. The vaccine sparked a strong immune response in children ages 10 to 17 when tested this summer, so children who get immunized once should be armed to fight off the virus. (The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases H1N1 website has lots of information on H1N1 flu vaccine trials, including new trials for people with asthma.) Children under age 10 responded less strongly to the vaccine in clinical trials, which is why two doses of vaccine a month apart are recommended for them. Supply has been slow getting into the pipeline, but almost 6 million H1N1 vaccines doses had been shipped as of last week. You know where I stand on this one: When it comes to protecting my child from a potentially fatal new flu, I’m going with the vaccine.