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As school year begins, some answers about swine flu

As thousands of students return to Tampa Bay-area classrooms this week, health, school and government officials are bracing for a second — and much bigger — wave of swine flu cases.

Gov. Charlie Crist has traveled around the state preaching preparedness. County health departments have been meeting with school and emergency management officials. And teachers are stocking classrooms with plenty of hand sanitizer.

"We expect that when school starts next week we will see more cases … and more questions," said Andrea Dopico, a spokeswoman and surveillance program manager for the Pinellas County Health Department.

In spite of all the preparation and education, questions still abound. Dopico said the Health Department has seen a steady flow of calls to its H1N1 information line. Area doctors also report an increase in queries from patients about the virus, which first emerged in late March and has since spread to nearly every country in the world.

"It's been a mix of concerned parents and people concerned about exposure," Dopico said.

What do I do if I have flu symptoms?

Most people should stay home, isolate themselves, get plenty of rest and drink enough fluids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. But if you are severely ill or have one of a number of underlying conditions that put you at high risk for flu complications, you should contact your health care provider.

Do I need to get tested for swine flu?

State labs now test for the H1N1 virus only in patients with life-threatening illnesses or those who live near suspected outbreaks in settings such as schools, nursing homes and jails. Doctors, however, can still send samples to private labs for testing.

What are some underlying conditions that put someone at high risk for flu complications, and how bad can things get in these cases?

Underlying conditions include pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and kidney disease. The large majority of swine flu deaths, including all six in Hillsborough County to date, have involved people who had one of more of these underlying conditions.

In which cases are doctors prescribing antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu?

Dr. Juan Dumois, director of the pediatric infectious disease program at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, said antivirals should be given to patients with underlying conditions that place them at high risk for flu complications, patients who are sick enough to be hospitalized, or patients who are younger than 5 years or older than 65. Dumois added that antivirals also should be given if the patient has been sick for less than 72 hours.

The World Health Organization on Friday stressed that Tamiflu should only be given to particularly vulnerable people. The agency previously said it was up to doctors to decide who should get Tamiflu.

Is swine flu more severe than seasonal flu?

The virus has not been more severe than seasonal flu. The majority of swine flu cases have been mild, and the symptoms of the virus have been similar to seasonal flu. That said, seasonal flu is no picnic. An estimated 36,000 people die from seasonal flu in the United States each year. So far, 522 people have died from swine flu in the United States and its territories. In Florida, 59 people have died from swine flu this year.

What's the latest on the swine flu vaccine?

The vaccine is undergoing testing, and the first doses are expected to be available in October. On Friday, U.S. health officials reported that no "red flags" have been reported in tests so far.

Who should get the swine flu vaccine when it becomes available?

A CDC advisory committee is recommending that the following groups receive the vaccine when it first becomes available: pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months, health care and emergency medical services personnel with direct patient contact, children 6 months through 4 years of age, and children 5-18 with chronic medical conditions.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

FAST FACTS

Swine flu symptoms

Common symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, chills, muscle pains, runny nose, sore throat and headaches.

For more information

• Visit flu.gov or the state Department of Health at www.doh.state.fl.us.

• For the latest on swine flu and prevention tips, go to tampabay.com/swine-flu.

College care packages

Some Florida universities are preparing care packages for students who come down with swine flu on campus. Most schools say they'll deliver "sick trays" to students confined to their rooms. Florida State University will offer a care package online for parents to send. The packs will include thermometers, soup, ginger ale, tea, muffins and possibly hand sanitizer and a face mask. Other schools will offer similar kits.

Associated Press

As school year begins, some answers about swine flu 08/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 11:36am]
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