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Swine Flu: On Its Way Out?

May 14, 2009 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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Illustration by Mark Weber

As the swine-flu reports start to take less time on the news -- with Mexico reporting stability and Americans learning more the value of hand-washing -- this is still not the time to think that we're completely out of the woods.

Health officials have gotten the word out about what's involved with this illness: Swine flu is a respiratory disease usually found in pigs and caused by type A influenza viruses. While swine flu is most common in pigs, human cases do happen, but rarely -- about one infection every one to two years in the United States.

President Barack Obama has wisely urged Americans to be cautious and not to panic, while health officials have taken steps to distribute medical supplies, including flu-test kits, through the country. Talk of closing the border to Mexico has also died down.

As for travelers, Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association in Washington, D.C., has issued the following statement, quoted here in part: "Travelers, like all citizens, should heed the advice of experts when determining how best to manage health concerns."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Swine Influenza should not discourage people from traveling to or within the United States. We must address the situation with measured, pragmatic responses, so as not to cause panic and negative consequences to the economy, if health risks are not imminent ... ."

Dow's group issues timely updates on: www.ustravel.org.

Panic Room?

Was there room for panic?

Marla Gold, dean of Drexel University's School of Public Health, said that "while it's still a bit too early to answer all of the questions and to say what might happen -- because this is a new genetic recombinant that's affecting humans, who don't have natural immunity to it -- there's one thing that's certain, and that is there is no room for panic, not in this situation, not in any situation. That will not help us.

"Public health officials at the local, state and federal levels are doing a great job, taking all the steps that have to be taken now, in connection with emergency plans that have been in place for some time, including quarantine authority, if we have to do that.

"At this point, we know more about addressing issues of care than we do about the disease itself -- and that's a good thing," stated Gold.

This is a time of stepped-up surveillance and looking for cases, she explained, adding that fortunately, the current flu season is beginning to wind down.

The real question is what might happen this fall when it could reappear; luckily, by then, a swine-flu vaccine will be available, noted Gold.

In the meantime, officials will have to wait to see what the disease may do and how it may mutate, which takes a long time.

The disease was never officially contained in Mexico, explained Gold, with several theories why.

One is that, as healthy young people, who are being hit hardest by this, were infected, their immune systems fought off the disease very well, so they didn't feel that sick and didn't seek treatment until later on. By then, it was too late for many others.

That young people are being infected is similar to what happened during the deadly influenza outbreak of 1917-18, noted Gold.

If someone becomes infected, he or she should call a doctor, but not go to the physician's office. The prescription drugs Tamiflu and Relenza are working against swine flu, and even children can take them, she said.

She also pointed out that all those surgical masks being worn by many people do not offer protection outdoors, though they do seem to be effective indoors.

To learn more, log on to: www.pandemicflu.gov; www.publichealth.drexel.edu; or www.tfah.org.

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