I had swine flu as a teen and it taught me a crucial lesson about life during an epidemic: Don't panic

Business Insider US
Coronavirus, Swine Flu
The author and her brother a few months before the swine-flu pandemic. Caroline Hroncich
  • I was diagnosed with swine flu during the 2009 pandemic, which killed 12,469 people in the US and between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide, according to the CDC.
  • The swine flu generated a similar level of panic to what we're seeing with the coronavirus today, and as with swine flu, the conversation about the new coronavirus outbreak often focuses on fatalities.
  • But it's important to think realistically about the risks an illness poses. For example, the chances you will get the coronavirus in the US are still low.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA's home page.

"You have swine flu" were words that in 2009 would have struck fear into pretty much any American.

I was diagnosed with the illness as a 16-year-old in high-school in June of that year.

The swine flu, or H1N1 virus, was a pandemic that generated global panic and anxiety similar to today's fears about the new coronavirus. It's called "swine flu" because lab tests showed it to be similar to a flu virus most commonly found in pigs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I remember reading a flurry of news articles and watching TV segments about the swine flu, but as a naive 10th-grader, I never thought it was something I could catch, but then I started to get sick.

I had been getting progressively sicker with flu-like symptoms (fever, coughing, sore throat) for several days when my mother decided to take me to the paediatrician. Through a simple swab test, I got confirmation of what I feared. It was swine flu.

I felt anxious, sitting in the car with my mother, calling my father and telling him about the diagnosis. "What are we going to do?" my parents said.

I spent more than a week quarantined in my bedroom with severe symptoms like vomiting, sore throat, and a high fever. My mom and dad were told by their offices not to come in to work for fear of spreading the illness to colleagues (luckily, my parents and my younger brother did not get sick).

An alert email was issued to all of the (now panicked) parents at my high school. I missed more than a week of school and all my final exams. I lay in bed for days sweating from a fever and struggling to breathe. (I also have asthma, which worsened my symptoms.) My mother, who took care of me throughout the illness, remembers checking on me multiple times throughout the night to make sure I was still breathing. After more than a week of intense medication and care, I got better.

I am, of course, lucky to have survived a virus that the CDC estimates killed nearly 12,469 people in the US and between 151,700 and 575,400 people globally. But I am by no means alone. The CDC also estimates there were 60.8 million cases of swine flu in the US between April 12, 2009, and April 10, 2010. By comparison, the coronavirus is more deadly than swine flu, which WHO reported in 2019 had a fatality rate of 0.02%.

While it would be remiss to downplay the severity of an illness like swine flu or the coronavirus, it is worth talking about the vast numbers of people who get sick, get treatment, and move on with their lives.

"It is important to remember that early on in an epidemic, there is a 'tip of the iceberg' phenomenon where we overestimate more severe cases and mild or asymptomatic cases go unrecognised, so the mortality seems higher than the reality," Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Hospital, wrote in a post on the Harvard Health Blog.

Much of the conversation about the coronavirus today has focused on death. The coronavirus has a fatality rate of about 3.4%, but health experts predict it could be lower as more cases come to light, Business Insider previously reported. There have been about 2,810 deaths from the virus, and 82,548 cases across 47 countries, although 95% are in China. The US has reported 60 coronavirus cases in total, including 45 repatriated citizens.

About 30,000 coronavirus patients are confirmed to be in recovery, Business Insider reported. In fact, about 80% of coronavirus cases are shown to be mild, according to a study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There's another whole cohort that is either asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic," Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a briefing in early February. "We're going to see a diminution in the overall death rate."

The threat of coronavirus in the US is growing. The CDC reported on Wednesday that a patient in California who tested positive for the virus had no known contact with anyone sick and hadn't travelled to China - the first possible case of "community spread."

But the chances you will come down with the coronavirus in the US are still low, according to the CDC. While there is, of course, misleading information about the illness circulating online, the CDC recommends taking small steps like washing your hands, staying home if you're sick, and covering your mouth with a tissue if you sneeze. These small actions, health experts say, can make a big difference.

Like millions of others, I recovered from swine flu. The experience taught me a lot. Most important, I learned to seek out reliable information from trusted sources, and not to panic.

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