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Simple precautions will keep you safe from swine flu

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 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 ill.

How worried should I be about swine flu?

There's no need to panic. Even if you get it, cases have been mild in the U.S., with only one reported death, a toddler from Mexico who had other medical problems. Neither the one confirmed case in Pinellas, nor the five probable cases in Hillsborough has required hospitalization. Health officials say they're recovering.

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.

Scientists are still learning about the new swine flu strain, which they're calling H1N1. It remains unpredictable. But so far, experts say they are seeing reason to be optimistic.

"Is this the super scary disease that ate Tampa? No, it's not. It's flu," said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute. "But there should be ongoing respect for what flu can do in terms of an illness and a recognition of the need for vaccination."

Why are schools being closed?

Authorities are using the phrase "abundance of caution" a lot. Closing schools helps to slow the spread of the virus throughout the community, and children are very susceptible to it. Right now, there is no vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that children are likely to be infectious for about 7 to 10 days after the onset of illness, which may be longer than adults spread it.

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?

Will the doctor know right away if I have swine flu?

No. Many medical offices can determine if you have influenza type A, which only means it could be swine flu. Then samples may be sent to state health officials, who test for known strains of flu. If the type cannot be matched, it goes to the CDC in Atlanta, which confirms swine flu cases.

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.

Can I eat pork?

Yes. Swine flu viruses are not transmitted through food. You cannot get swine flu from eating pork or pork products.

Is swine flu treatable?

Yes, with the flu drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, but not with two older flu medications. But you can't take them as a preventative. Overusing antiviral drugs can help germs become resistant to them.

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.

Staff and wire reports

Simple precautions will keep you safe from swine flu 05/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 7:09pm]

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