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World

Answers to common questions about swine flu

As fears grow about whether a deadly new strain of swine flu will grow to pandemic proportions, Deutsche Welle has the answers to commonly asked questions concerning this new illness.

Pigs sniff for food at a farm on the outskirts of Mexico City

Direct contact with pigs is not necessary for human to contract swine flu

What exactly is swine flu?

Swine influenza is a common and sometimes fatal respiratory disease among pigs, first identified in 1930, that is caused by a Type A influenza virus.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed the strain of influenza, which contains DNA from avian, swine and human viruses and has been designated H1N1, has not been seen before.

The new subtype of swine flu, however, remains similar in many ways to other forms of the flu, including a fully human strain of influenza, also labeled H1N1.

What makes this strain of swine flu dangerous?

Tamiflu pills

Some drugs work against the new strain of swine flu

The new strain's ease of transmission from animal to human as well as from human to human makes it more dangerous than other related illnesses, such as avian flu, which could not be transmitted from one human to another.

While seasonal variations of influenza kill hundreds of thousands of people each year, those affected are mainly the elderly and young children. But the new strain of swine flu has infected people thought to have been healthy.

The WHO has called the flu a "public health emergency of international concern." It poses the biggest risk of a major pandemic since avian flu re-emerged in 2003, killing 257 out of 421 people infected in 15 countries.

How is the illness spread?

Swine flu is spread by microscopic particles that fly through the air when a person coughs or sneezes, or deposited on surfaces that are then touched by the hand and transmitted to the mouth, nose or eyes.

While the World Health Organization has said it is concerned by the new illness, it added that it is too early to change the threat level warning for a pandemic-- a global epidemic of a new and dangerous flu.

When a new strain of flu starts infecting people, and when it acquires the ability to pass from person to person, it can spark a pandemic. The last pandemic was in 1968 and killed about 1 million people.

What are the symptoms of swine flu?

People wearing protective face masks stand outside a hospital in Toluca, Mexico

Most cases of swine flu were in Mexico

Swine flu symptoms in humans are similar to those of seasonal influenza: fever, coughing, muscle pain and fatigue. Swine flu appears to cause more diarrhea and vomiting than normal flu.

People suffering from such symptoms, especially people who have recently traveled to Mexico, should consult a doctor.

How can the illness be treated?

There is currently no vaccine for swine flu, though the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control are working on one. The anti-viral mediations Tamiflu (active ingredient: oseltamivir) and Relenzy (active ingredient: zanamivir) have shown to be effective in some cases of swine flu.

Experts have said many unknowns remain about the H1N1 strain, including how easily it can spread from person to person and its virulence over time. They have also emphasized that there is no certainty a pandemic will occur.

Is it safe to eat pork products?

A respiratory virus, swine flu cannot be transmitted by food. The World Health Organization has ruled out any risk of infection from eating pork. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 F (71 C) kills viruses and bacteria.

Is it safe to travel to affected regions?

The European Commission has advised against non-essential travel to regions affected by the virus.

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