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Take flu precautions, but no need to panic

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 United States, 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 the victims are 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 United States. 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 respiratory 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 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 has 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 has been a surprise to public health experts, said Dr. David Morens, senior adviser 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.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit

Take flu precautions, but no need to panic 05/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 11:13pm]
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