Karen Simmons-Watson wouldn’t have wished getting swine flu on anyone, but three months after enduring a serious bout with the H1N1 pandemic virus, she’s almost glad she did.
“It’s kind of a relief to have gone through it so I don’t have to worry about it, and I don’t have to worry about giving it to anyone else,’” said Simmons-Watson, 50, a fourth-grade teacher in Milwaukee, Wis., who was hospitalized in June for 10 days because of the infection.
Even better, Simmons-Watson won’t have to fret about whether and when to get a shot to ward off the new flu virus because she’s now naturally protected.
“The infectious disease doctor said, ‘Your system is already immune to it,’” she said.
For hundreds of thousands of swine flu patients in the U.S. who’ve endured high fevers, body aches and coughs, if there’s any upside to the illness, it’s that they likely can’t get it again.
“I’m very glad,” said Gail Gerber Stalarow, 45, of Houston, whose two sons, Logan, 11, and Micah, 14, have just recovered from mild cases of swine flu. “They’re probably not immune forever, but I’m hoping that they’re done for a few years.”
Avoiding H1N1 flu is still the best advice by far, health officials emphasize. But in a nation where scientists estimate that half the population may be infected, and a third might come down with symptoms, confirmed survivors of the new flu strain can at least be assured they’re done with the disease.
“It’ll be just like they’re vaccinated, only better,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “Natural infection is the best immunity.”
Intentional infection ‘very dangerous’
But Fauci was quick to quash the idea that anyone might actually try to contract the virus in hopes of gaining protection, calling it “a very dangerous” idea.
“You can’t predict who will become very ill,” he said.
So far, the germ has caused mild symptoms in the vast majority of patients, but has caused serious illness, with hospitalization and even death, in a small proportion of cases. In the U.S., more than 1 million people had contracted the virus between April and June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Sept. 3, more than 9,000 people were hospitalized and 593 had died from the infection.
Even people who believe they’ve had swine flu shouldn’t skip the H1N1 shots unless they’ve had laboratory tests that confirm the infection, Fauci said. Otherwise, they don’t know if the illness actually was caused by a cold, another type of flu or a respiratory illness with similar symptoms.
Health officials have stopped testing for all but the most serious cases of H1N1 infection because the virus has become so widespread and dominant, Fauci said. If doctors in an institution or area suspect an epidemic, they'll test a few sentinel cases and then assume that people with similar symptoms also have the novel flu.
“The trouble is, very few people have documentation,” Fauci said. “You can’t take a chance that you got it right because you guessed right.”
That argument doesn’t sit well with some swine flu survivors. Alon Sasson, 22, is a student at Emory University in Atlanta who came down two weeks ago with a presumed case of swine flu, complete with fever, sore throat, weakness and light-headedness. School health clinic workers didn’t test him for the virus because so many other students at the school were sick with H1N1, but they told Sasson they were almost certain he had it.
Based on that information, he figures he’s paid his dues and can skip a swine flu shot this fall.
“If I assume I had it, I’m not going to get the vaccine,” Sasson said.
‘One of the worst flus I ever had’
But other swine flu survivors say they’re not taking any chances that the bug will return. Sara Nolte, 22, of Monroe, Wash., was an early victim of the virus who became ill in late May.
“It was actually like one of the worst flus I ever had,” said Nolte, who suffered body aches and a fever of 102 degrees. “The first four days, I was, like, knocked out.”
Her case was confirmed in a lab, but she’s thinking about getting the H1N1 vaccine when it’s available, just in case.
“It sucked pretty bad,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d have to be hospitalized or anything, but it was bad.”
Gail Gerber Stalarow, the Houston mother, plans to check with her pediatrician to see whether there’s any benefit to H1N1 vaccination for her boys, even though they're probably immune. Meanwhile, she’s likely the envy of fellow moms who were secretly hoping their kids would get mild cases of swine flu.
“Before school started, they were saying, ‘We just want to get it over with,’” Stalarow said.