Swine flu has become so widespread that public health officials in Florida and elsewhere have stopped mass testing for the virus.
Florida's 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 summer camps, schools, nursing homes and jails. Florida's labs began the new practice on July 13; other states have made similar changes.
When the virus first emerged in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended testing for all suspected cases of swine flu.
Now that the flu is established as a pandemic, the public health emphasis has changed from tracing the disease's progression to containing it.
Here's what the latest developments in the swine flu epidemic mean for you:
Why the change?
One of the main reasons for widespread testing when swine flu first emerged was to determine whether the virus could be stopped. Health officials now know it can't, said Dr. Patricia Ryder, director of the disease control division of the Pinellas County Health Department.
The virus has spread to every state and U.S. territory, and is spreading rapidly in nearly every country around the world.
So the role of the state labs has shifted to identifying the severity of the illness and preventing outbreaks in group settings.
But what if I have another kind of flu? Shouldn't I be tested?
Of patients who have tested positive for flu this summer, 98 percent have been found to have swine flu, said Dr. Richard S. Hopkins, acting state epidemiologist.
But if you really want a test, private doctors still can send samples to private labs.
Has this new testing policy changed how doctors treat patients with flu symptoms?
No. Doctors continue to prescribe antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu for patients with flu symptoms who also have underlying conditions such as asthma, obesity, heart and lung disease and pregnancy that put them in high-risk categories.
For most people with flu symptoms who are otherwise healthy, doctors do not prescribe antiviral drugs; rather, they tell those patients to stay home, rest, isolate themselves and drink fluids. This is to preserve the antivirals for those who need them most. The CDC also says that the drugs have little benefit for low-risk patients.
With less testing, how will we know how many people actually have swine flu?
Even with widespread testing, it has been impossible to know how many people have contracted the virus, because for most people, the symptoms are mild.
In the U.S., for example, the CDC has reported more than 40,000 swine flu cases, but officials estimate that more than 1 million people have or have had the virus.
Both the World Health Organization and CDC have announced that they would stop tracking and reporting the number of confirmed swine flu cases.
If there's no testing, how can I know to avoid places where people have the flu?
There never has been a requirement to publicly announce flu cases. Your best defense remains personal hygiene measures.
How do I protect myself and my family?
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use alcohol-based hand cleaners, especially after you cough or sneeze.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
• Avoid contact with those who have respiratory symptoms.
• Stay home if you are sick for seven days after your symptoms begin or until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours, whichever is longer.
What's the latest on the swine flu vaccine?
Vaccine development remains a top priority. The CDC has said that up to 40 percent of Americans could get swine flu this year and next, and several hundred-thousand could die unless a vaccine campaign is successful.
U.S. government and health officials are currently recruiting people for swine flu vaccine testing, with a goal of having one approved and ready for distribution in October.
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.