Warning from woman feeling H1N1 effects after 10 years

People still suffering from H1N1 feel 'forgotten' as focus shifts to COVID-19 long-haulers.

Laura Hensley 4 minute read November 23, 2020
h1n1 virus long term

A woman infected with the H1N1 virus as a healthy teen is still suffering. Getty

A British woman who had swine flu as a teen says she still suffers from the virus a decade later and is speaking out in hopes of raising awareness about the seriousness of long-haul suffering amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Twenty-six-year-old Saffra Monteiro told the BBC that she spent months in and out of the hospital after contracting H1N1 when she was 15. The Cambridgeshire resident says she still lives with the effects of swine flu today, including problems with her digestive system and sinuses.   

“It almost killed me,” Monteiro said. “Bearing in mind that I was considered a healthy 15-year-old.” 

The swine flu pandemic was officially from 2009 to 2010, though cases were still reported afterwards. Estimates vary, but between 123,000 to 200,000 people worldwide are believed to have died amid the swine flu pandemic, with 428 deaths in Canada by the end of 2010. Most adults had mild or moderate symptoms.  

While the pandemic wasn’t as deadly as anticipated, it still had serious effects. Most cases of swine flu occurred in previously healthy young adults between the ages of 25 to 44, or in older adults with chronic underlying conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, Infection Prevention and Control Canada (IPAC) says. The highest hospitalization rates in Canada occurred in kids under five.  

“The 2009 H1N1 pandemic should have been a warning sign,” Steffanie Strathdee, the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California San Diego’s Department of Medicine, told Live Science. 

“It didn’t end up being a pandemic that killed millions of people as we feared it would, but it should have been a wake-up call.” 

Monteiro told the BBC that she feels people like her who are still suffering from H1N1 are “forgotten” as the focus has now shifted to COVID-19 “long-haulers.” She encourages everyone to take the pandemic seriously and wear a mask to avoid a fate like her own.  

“I’m on medication and there are lots of normal things that I can’t do that other people can do,” she said. “I’m still very much alone in looking after myself with no other help, whereas I think COVID victims are going to get a lot of help.” 

Others who contracted swine flu also complained of ongoing symptoms months after testing positive for the virus. A Nova Scotia woman told the Toronto Star back in 2010 that she suffered symptoms, like a cough and bouts of fatigue, for five months after contracting H1N1. 

While both have some overlapping symptoms — including fever, cough and fatigue — there are key differences between SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and H1N1. First, they are different types of viruses: H1N1 is an influenza virus while SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus. 

What’s more, COVID-19 has shown to be more lethal, especially in severe cases as seen in older adults or in people with underlying health conditions. For people with “long COVID,” or symptoms that persist for months, complaints of brain fog, fatigue and muscle soreness are common. 

Cordell Hilderman, a pharmacist in Saskatoon, told the Leader Post that seven months after testing positive for COVID-19 he still struggles with severe fatigue, decreased kidney function and an abnormally fast heart rate.  

Flu shots help protect against strains of influenza, including H1N1, but there are no vaccines currently on the market for SARS-CoV-2. Given the recent news of promising COVID-19 vaccines seeing high efficacy rates in trials, Canadians are hopeful they will have access to new vaccines in the coming year 

In the meantime, experts continue to stress the importance of physical distancing, handwashing, wearing a mask and only socializing with people in your household.  

Laura Hensley is a writer with Healthing.ca

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