Preparing for novel H1N1

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James Steinberg, MD:
Preparing for novel H1N1
September 30, 2009

Late last spring, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel H1N1 virus a pandemic. Yet, months before, anxious physicians and researchers had been tracking its behavior. One of those physicians is James Steinberg, MD, chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital Midtown.

Steinberg, an expert in infectious disease, says three key factors make for a pandemic. "A virus can cause a pandemic when it can cause significant disease in humans, when it's a new virus to which people don't have any immunity, and when the virus has the capacity to spread from person to person," Steinberg says. "The novel H1N1 virus appears to meet all three of these characteristics."

The H1N1 virus spreads from person to person via large droplets, the ones that fall quickly onto surfaces. These viruses can be spread by being close to an infected person who is coughing or sneezing or by touching contaminated surfaces. That's why hand washing reduces the chance of infection.

"Let's say somebody with the flu coughs into theirs hand or uses this phone, and I shake their hands or use the phone," says Steinberg. "The virus can live for only a short period of time on surfaces, but if you get those droplets on your hands and transmit them to your nose or mouth, that's how you can get the flu."

Steinberg cautions that the word pandemic has a horrible connotation. "We think of the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide, more people than were killed during World War I itself," says Steinberg. "But there are pandemics in which the bumps in mortality have been modest."

To hear Steinberg's own words about H1N1 and how it will affect the upcoming flu season, use the player at the top of this page or subscribe to the podcast.