Swine flu: What you need to know to stay healthy

The swine flu virus has been a growing concern since it emerged last spring. So far in Georgia, the new flu has caused more than a dozen deaths and nearly 400 hospitalizations.

Early last month, a 51-year-old Telfair County middle school teacher died after he was diagnosed with the virus, also known as H1N1. Wednesday, a north Georgia second-grader died.

Health officials say that as the swine flu vaccine is distributed, administering it at schools will be a priority.

“This is a massive undertaking,” said Jennifer Jones, public information officer for the state’s North Central Health District, which oversees a 13-county region that includes more than 90,000 school-age children.

As it becomes available to the general public, the vaccine itself will be free, but some providers may charge a nominal fee to dispense it. Dr. David Harvey, the district health director, said late last week that he “would advise everybody to get it.”

“The H1N1 flu doesn’t seem to be any more severe (than seasonal flu),” Harvey said, “but no one is immune to it — except for perhaps for some who are 50 or 60 years or older and lived through the old swine flu.”

In coming weeks, as the federal government unfurls what is being called the largest vaccine rollout in decades, expect to hear much more about H1N1 in the push to vaccinate and educate the public.

Here is some of what you will need to know:

Professional opinions

A pair of Georgia doctors recently discussed swine flu and seasonal flu with The Telegraph. Dr. Joseph Stubbs of Albany, president of the American College of Physicians, and Dr. Sandra Fryhofer of Atlanta, a member of the ACP’s Adult Immunization Advisory Board and an H1N1 study group with the CDC, spoke with Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr.

Dr. Joseph Stubbs: While everybody’s concerned about getting themselves protected against the swine flu, don’t forget the health-care costs of the regular seasonal flu. In our country, we have over 30,000 deaths each year attributable to the seasonal flu, and this could be largely prevented by people getting vaccinations. Eighty percent of the American population is advised to get the flu vaccine, but only half tend to do it.

Dr. Sandra Fryhofer: My entire staff has been immunized against seasonal flu. And that’s an important point. Each year, only about 36 percent of health-care workers end up getting immunized. So I would hope that patients would encourage their doctors to get immunized. Because if your doctor gets sick, they could spread it to you.

Stubbs: The main thing to know is that the H1N1 may not be that much more dangerous than the seasonal flu, but it is probably in the younger population because of its different genetic makeup, more contagious and more likely to affect more people. So as a result ... if you are sick, stay home. You’re not helping anybody by going to work or school if you’re sick with this.

Fryhofer: Parents of college students might want to make sure that their kids have a kit with alcohol-based hand gel, tissues, a couple of surgical masks, some ibuprofen, ginger ale, chicken broth, soda crackers, some herbal tea, a bag of herbal cough drops and a thermometer.

Stubbs: The hope is that in Georgia at least (with the vaccine on the way) we have seen the worst of the swine flu. And then, ironically, when we get the vaccine, my hope is that it will not be that prevalent. But you never know.

Fryhofer: I don’t know what the future will bring. I think that’s the scariest part, because you don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. We’re really trying to encourage patients now to go ahead and get their regular flu shot.

Swine flu prevention tips

What is swine flu?

The contagious H1N1 virus is a new influenza virus that causes illness in people. It has been dubbed “swine flu” because tests showed that it was very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. However, further research indicates that the new virus is quite different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird genes and human genes.

Is there a vaccine?

Yes. It is expected to be widely available via shot or nasal spray locally within the month. A public health official said people in the midstate can begin calling their area health departments on or about Oct. 15 to check on the vaccine’s availability. Children 9 or younger will need two doses of the vaccine, 21-28 days apart. For people older than age 9, one dose will do. Children may prefer the nasal spray because they don’t have to get a shot.

How does H1N1 spread?

Mainly through coughing and sneezing from an infected person, but also by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your nose or mouth.

What are the symptoms?

They include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Many people infected have also reported diarrhea and vomiting. Those infected may be contagious from a day before getting sick to five to seven days after, but this is only an estimate.

How serious is infection?

Illness ranges from mild to severe. Most people who have been sick have recovered without needing medical treatment. However, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred. About 70 percent of people who have been hospitalized with the 2009 H1N1 virus have had one or more medical conditions previously recognized as placing people at high risk of serious seasonal flu-related complications (pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and kidney disease).

One thing that appears to make H1N1 different from seasonal flu is that adults older than 64 do not yet appear to be at increased risk of H1N1-related complications. Information analyzed by the CDC supports the conclusion that H1N1 flu has caused greater disease burden in people younger than 25 years of age than older people. Currently, there are few cases and few deaths reported in people older than 64 years old, which is unusual when compared with seasonal flu.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Get the vaccine when it becomes available. Also, everyday healthy habits such as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze can’t hurt. Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub. Also avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

What should you do if you get sick?

If you live in areas where people have been identified with 2009 H1N1 flu and become ill with influenza-like symptoms, including fever, body aches, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, nausea, or vomiting or diarrhea, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.) Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from making others sick. Staying at home means that you should not leave your home except to seek medical care. This means avoiding normal activities, including work, school, travel, shopping, social events and public gatherings. If you have severe illness or you are at high risk for flu complications, contact your health-care provider or seek medical care. Your health-care provider will determine whether flu testing or treatment is needed.

Are there medicines to treat H1N1 infection?

Yes. The CDC recommends the use of oseltamivir or zanamivir for the treatment and/or prevention of infection with 2009 H1N1 flu virus. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder) that fight against the flu by keeping flu viruses from reproducing in your body. If you get sick, antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious flu complications. During the current pandemic, the priority use for influenza antiviral drugs is to treat severe influenza illness (for example hospitalized patients) and people who are sick who have a condition that places them at high risk for serious flu-related complications.

Sources: www.cdc.gov and the Georgia Department of Community Health

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