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Swine flu questions? Here are the answers

Our family has been using hand sanitizers when we can't wash our hands. Are these products really effective?

It's best to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, but when you can't get to a restroom, hand sanitizers can help prevent exposure to viruses. Carry a container of sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol and use it after touching common surfaces or if you're in areas with sick people. Beware of generic sanitizers that don't include their alcohol content or that have less than 40 percent alcohol, which will not kill the germs that spread disease. A recent study in a hospital in Tennessee concluded that sanitizers with less than 60 percent alcohol were no better than plain tap water at killing germs. To get the most out of the antibacterial protection in the sanitizer, use enough to wet your all of the surfaces of your hands completely. Rub your hands until they feel dry. If your hands are very soiled, hand sanitizers will not remove the dirt, so there are times when washing with soap and water will be absolutely necessary.

Why are pregnant women at risk for more serious cases of swine flu?

Regrettably, pregnant women have died from the H1N1 (swine) flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control, pregnant women are more likely to develop serious — and even fatal — cases of H1N1 than the general population. Pregnant women in their third trimesters are more likely to be hospitalized with serious flu symptoms than women who are not pregnant. This was also the case during the 1918 and 1957 flu pandemics. Respiratory diseases in pregnant women may be worse because the growing baby decreases a woman's lung capacity at the same time that her immune system is protecting the baby instead of the mother. We strongly urge pregnant women to receive the prepackaged, single-dose, preservative-free (no thimerosal) injectable H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine, which will be available very soon to protect both Mom and baby.

Swine flu is referred to as a "pandemic." What does that really mean and how is a pandemic different from an epidemic?

H1N1 (swine) flu is a pandemic, a Greek term that means "all people," because it is an infectious disease spreading through the human population worldwide. In our history, we've seen cholera, typhus, smallpox and tuberculosis pandemics. To be properly called a pandemic, a disease must be new to a population, it must cause serious illness in humans and it must spread easily, according to the World Health Organization. Although both pandemic and epidemic refer to the spread of diseases, a pandemic disease would be one that affects a higher number of humans over a much larger region. In the case of H1N1 (swine) flu, the disease is now a pandemic because it is in every region of the world. Epidemics can develop into pandemics if they continue to affect more people over larger regions of the world.

Which companies are making the H1N1 vaccines?

Three manufacturers are making the H1N1 (swine) flu injectable vaccine after being given the go-ahead by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are Sanofi-Pasteur, Inc., CSL Limited and Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostic Limited. Supplies of the intranasal vaccine are manufactured by MedImmune, LLC.

Dr. Claude Dharamraj has been the director of the Pinellas County Health Department since 2006. If you have H1N1 (swine) flu questions for her, send them to for possible inclusion in a future column. No personal replies, please; do not provide personal health information.

Swine flu questions? Here are the answers 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 4:09pm]
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