As reports of swine flu continue to rise in the United States and around the world, the average American is probably asking, "How should I protect myself?" And the answer is: Do what you’d do in other flu outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising people to “take the ordinary steps they would take to protect themselves: frequent hand washing, and making sure you cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.” By midday Sunday, there were 20 confirmed cases in the United States. All infected U.S. patients have recovered. No one has died. Mexico, however, has been hard hit: 81 deaths had been deemed “likely linked” to a deadly new strain of the flu virus by health authorities there. Viral testing has confirmed 20 cases, said Dr. Jose A. Cordova Villalobos, Mexico’s health secretary, and Mexican authorities are investigating at least 1,000 cases of illness. Cases also have been reported in New Zealand and Canada. The World Health Organization calls the situation a “public health emergency of international concern,” and the United States on Sunday declared a “public health emergency,” likened by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to preparations for a potential hurricane. No authorities are using the word pandemic. Because so much is still unknown at this point, the main risk factor is people traveling to areas where cases have already been identified. “However this virus may already be in other places in the United States,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told CNN. “With enhanced surveillance, we will see more cases and that is why it makes good sense to be proactive, by doing things we know are effective in reducing exposure.” Explainer: Swine flu facts » Skinner also stressed that sick people should not go into work, nor should sick children be sent to school. In areas where swine flu has been identified, the local health officials may have other recommendations as well, so he says residents of those areas need to pay attention to developments. “People who live in these areas need to listen carefully to what local health officials are advising with regards to specific measures to protect themselves, like going to school or work and attending public events.” Unfortunately, since this is a new strain of influenza, the flu vaccine for this past flu season offers no protection. “However, we do have anti-virals that work against this swine flu,” says Skinner, referring to oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). “Someone who has [swine flu], if they are treated early, the anti-flu medicines work against this.”
And while there are no travel restrictions issued for Mexico, Skinner advises people who plan on traveling to Mexico, “to take the measures they can take to protect themselves, like frequent hand-washing.” According to Skinner, health officials are still trying to figure out where exactly the virus originated, how transmissible it is and why it is mild in some cases and deadlier in others.