Updated June 12
The World Health Organization has raised the swine flu pandemic warning level from phase 5 to 6 - its highest alert.
What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a respiratory illness in pigs caused by a virus. The swine flu virus routinely causes outbreaks in pigs but doesn't usually kill many of them.
How will this new alert level change things in the U.S.?
It won't change much, say federal health officials. A pandemic is an indication of the spread of the virus, not its severity. Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of immunizations and respiratory diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, addressed the possibility of a pandemic declaration in a press briefing last month.
"A Phase 6 means that the virus is spreading in a sustained way in at least two regions of the world," Schuchat said. "It's important to know that we're seeing sustained spread here in the U.S. and we're acting very aggressively. And so if it changed to a Phase 6 would have less impact for us here in the U.S. than for countries that haven't yet gone into a full court press on the virus."
CDC spokesman Glen Nowak added that the move to Phase 6 would not change how the U.S. tackled swine flu. "Our actions in the past month have been as if there was a pandemic in this country," Nowak said.
What will likely happen next?
A Phase 6 declaration would likely make drugmakers speed up production of a swine flu vaccine and lead world health officials to make sure there would be adequate supply. It also might prompt other governments to devote more money toward efforts to contain the virus.
Will countries start restricting travel or closing borders?
It's not likely. The World Health Organization has said in a statement that at this stage, the pandemic can be characterized globally as being modest in severity. Because of this, it urged nations not to close borders or restrict travel and trade at this time.
How worried should I be about swine flu?
There's no need to panic. Even if you get it, the large majority of cases in the U.S. have been mild.
But it's still dangerous, right?
Swine flu infections appear about as severe as the seasonal flu. That doesn't mean to take it lightly. Seasonal flu leads to about 36,000 deaths annually in the U.S. Heart disease, the leading cause of death, kills 650,000.
How do I know if I have swine flu, or if my kid has it?
There is no singular symptom that distinguishes swine flu from seasonal flu. The Florida Department of Health has doctors looking out for "acute febrile repiratory illness" — a fever of 100 degrees or higher AND a sore throat, cough or nasal congestion. Symptoms may be accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. If you're not running a fever, you're probably in the clear.
My child has the symptoms! Should I rush to the doctor?
State health officials say you should call a doctor if you see the symptoms. But remember, children run fevers for many reasons, says Dr. Karalee Kulek-Luzey, medical director of the Pediatric Health Care Alliance, with offices across the Tampa Bay region. With flu, children often run a high fever of 102 or greater in the first 48 hours, she said. Strep throat, bronchitis, an ear infection and even a common cold, particularly among young children, could also be responsible for a fever.
Assess how ill your child looks before rushing anywhere. Does he appear happy, or achy and lethargic? Is he in a high-risk category for flu complications? That includes children with asthma, cystic fibrosis and compromised immune systems. Has he been in contact with somebody who's been in Mexico?
Why are children and young adults most afflicted?
That's been a surprise to public health experts, said Dr. David Morens, senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It's too early to know what is going on. Older adults could have some immunity, due to past exposure to similar viruses. This could be good news. The elderly have higher risks for complications from the flu. Younger victims might be getting milder infections.
How do I know if hand-washing is protecting me?
Health officials say to scrub with soap and warm water for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song.
More protective measures: Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, where viruses can enter. And if you have to sneeze or cough, do it into your sleeve.
How do I protect myself and my family?
Cover your coughs and sneezes, with a tissue that you throw away or by sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand. Wash hands frequently; if soap and water aren't available, hand gels can substitute. Stay home if you're sick and keep children home from school if they are.
Is swine flu treatable?
Yes, with the flu drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, but not with two older flu medications.
Is there enough?
Yes. The federal government has stockpiled enough of the drugs to treat 50 million people, and many states have additional stocks. As a precaution, the CDC has shipped a quarter of that supply to the states to keep on hand just in case the virus starts spreading more than it has so far.
Should I take Tamiflu as a precaution if I'm not sick yet?
No. Overusing antiviral drugs can help germs become resistant to them.
How do I know if I should see a doctor?
Health authorities say if you live in places where swine flu cases have been confirmed, or you recently traveled to Mexico, and you have flulike symptoms, ask your doctor if you need treatment or to be tested.
Is there a vaccine to prevent this new infection?
No. The CDC has created what's called "seed stock" of the new virus that manufacturers would need to start production. But that would take a few months, and the government hasn't yet decided if the outbreak is bad enough to order that.
Can I eat pork?
Yes. Swine flu viruses are not transmitted through food. You cannot get swine flu from eating pork or pork products.
--Times staff and wire reports