HIV And Swine Flu
Swine Flu is an ongoing global pandemic and official guidelines on diagnosis, treatment and preventative measures could change at any time. We have tried here to examine some of the issues relevant to people living with HIV, nevertheless, the best place to get up-to-date advice is from the NHS's online services or your nearest NHS clinic.
What Is Swine Flu?
The Swine Flu virus, also referred to as the H1N1 virus, is a respiratory illness which has rapidly spread around the world in 2009. Thought to have originated in Mexico, South America, Swine Flu was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation in June 2009. In the UK, at the time of writing, this particular flu virus has not been lethal in the overwhelming majority of patients who have been unfortunate enough to pick it up.
If You're HIV Positive...
In July 2009, the British government and the National Health Service (NHS) updated their guidelines on Swine Flu and stated that, among other groups, people with suppressed immune systems and chronic pre-existing medical conditions may be at greater risk than the rest of the population of becoming seriously ill with Swine Flu. This has understandably caused concern among people living with HIV. As things stand, NHS experts do not believe that HIV patients, providing they are generally well, are taking their medication as prescribed and do not have low CD4 cell counts, are at no greater risk of catching or dying of Swine Flu than anyone living without the virus. Other parts of the immune system other than CD4 cells are capable of fighting off the flu virus, including Swine Flu.
Complications Of Flu
The HIV virus infects immune system cells called CD4 cells and makes them less effective. The virus also reduces the number of these cells in the body. Fortunately, today, this aspect of HIV can be controlled with medication, but the effectiveness of treatment varies from patient to patient. HIV patients who do have low CD4 cells counts (particularly counts below 200) also have suppressed immune systems and are, if they catch Swine Flu, at greater risk of developing complications such as pneumonia. This means that they do have a higher chance of becoming seriously ill as a result of contracting Swine Flu, just as they would if they caught any other type of flu.
Government advice on protecting yourself from Swine Flu is likely to change as the pandemic progresses, so please check official NHS guidelines on a regular basis. The core preventative measures for HIV patients are much the same as they are for anyone else:
Wash your hands very regularly (the Swine Flu virus spreads through droplets which are expelled from the nose or mouth of an infected person when he or she coughs or sneezes. These droplets can travel approximately three feet. They get onto the hands of the sick person who can spread them to phones, keyboards, door handles - basically anywhere). Therefore you should wash your hands often, with soap and warm water, and perhaps buy a bottle of alcohol solution of the type used by hospital staff for hand cleansing.
If you sneeze or cough, do it into a tissue and then throw the tissue in the bin immediately. Then wash your hands.
Avoid, if possible, being very close to someone who is sick.
If You Have Symptoms
If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, call your GP, or NHS direct (the phone number is easily found online) or your local HIV clinic. Do not go straight to your doctor's clinic. Do not go to the hospital or call an ambulance unless you are experiencing an actual medical emergency. Swine Flu feels bad and is very scary, but it's not classed as a medical emergency unless you are having other severe symptoms such as great difficulty breathing, chest pain, loss of consciousness, etc. Your doctor will arrange for you to send a healthy friend or relative to pick up anti-viral medication (Tamiflu) and bring them to you. In the meantime, you should take the usual paracetamol-based remedies available without prescription for cold and flu, drink lots of water and rest. Stay in close contact with your doctor or HIV clinic and let them know if your symptoms get worse.