Health workers wear face masks as precaution against the influenza A H1N1 virus, which has spread to 168 countries, at an El Salvador, Central America hospital in July. — PHOTO: REUTERS
WASHINGTON – THE US and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere are bracing themselves for a second wave of Influenza A (H1N1) infections that could strike millions of people and contribute to the hospitalisation and deaths of thousands, including many children and young adults.
While flu viruses are notoriously capricious, making any firm predictions impossible, a second wave could hit the Northern Hemisphere within weeks and lead to major disruptions in schools, workplaces and hospitals, according to US and international health officials.
Since emerging last spring in Mexico, the H1N1 virus has spread to 168 countries at least, causing over 162,000 confirmed cases and playing a role in at least 1,154 deaths, including 436 in the US. As the first flu pandemic in 41 years spread through the Southern Hemisphere’s winter recently, scientists have been closely monitoring the virus for clues to how much of a threat it might pose this autumn.
So far, no signs have emerged that the microbe has mutated into a more dangerous form. Most people who get infected seem to experience relatively mild illness.
Still, in the Southern Hemisphere, which experiences winter during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, the virus caused a more intense and somewhat earlier flu season in some places.
Its appearance in countries such as South Africa and India, both of which have just recorded their first deaths, is raising concern that the pandemic could be devastating if it begins to sicken large numbers of people in places with fewer resources.
Meanwhile, concern about a second wave has prompted a flurry of activity by federal, state and local officials in the United States.
Many experts suspect the second wave could be more severe than an average flu season, which hospitalises an estimated 200,000 Americans and contributes to 36,000 deaths. Because the virus is new, most people have no immunity against it.
The number of cases could increase rapidly as soon as schools begin to reopen in the next few weeks and could accelerate further as cooler, drier temperatures return, possibly peaking in October.
That is much earlier than the usual flu season, and it could create confusion. People could start getting sick with the H1N1 flu before a vaccine is widely available and nonetheless be urged to get vaccinated against the regular seasonal flu, which will be available first.