Pandemic potential makes swine flu a major threat

How is this swine flu virus different?

This strain appears to be a subtype not seen before in humans or pigs, with genetic material from pigs, bird and humans, the World Health Organization says. Unlike most cases of swine flu, this one can spread from person to person, said Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When do symptoms show up?

About one to four days usually elapse between the time a person is infected and the onset of symptoms. Influenza normally causes symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, headaches and body aches, fever, chills and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Swine flu causes the same symptoms and may be difficult to distinguish from other strains of flu and respiratory illnesses.

Reports mention people in their 30s dying. Is that unusual?

Severe cases of flu that lead to death are normally seen in very young and very old people whose immune systems are too weak to fight off the virus. The New York Times reports that in Mexico, where most of the deaths have occurred, many of the victims waited days before seeking medical help and others turned to traditional folk medicine instead of physicians. So far, U.S. cases are fairly mild for the most part. In fact, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said most of the U.S. cases so far didn't need a doctor's care.

So it doesn't seem that scary. Why such concern?

CDC experts say they have to be aggressive because they have no idea if this outbreak will fade or turn into a pandemic. So far, most Americans have recovered on their own without being hospitalized. But the rising death toll shows that this outbreak has the potential to be serious.

How does it spread?

It's thought to be happening in the same way that seasonal flu spreads. Flu viruses are spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing of people with influenza. Infected people may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to 7 or more days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Sometimes people may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

How long can viruses live outside the body?

Some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or longer on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs and desks.

Can I get swine influenza from eating pork?

No. Swine influenza viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products.

Beyond the flu symptoms, what actually causes death?

In addition to compromising the lungs, the flu can impair organ function across the body. That's why people with underlying heart and kidney disease are so vulnerable to the flu, says William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The flu can damage the lungs and lead to bacterial pneumonia, which can be deadly. Pneumonia causes many of the 200,000 hospitalizations due to flu each year, as well as many of the 36,000 annual deaths.

What should I do to keep from getting the flu?

First and most important: wash your hands. Try to stay in good general health. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food. Try not to touch surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu virus. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Sources: CDC; USA Today; New York Times

Pandemic potential makes swine flu a major threat 04/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 6:06pm]

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