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The dreaded swine flu is spreading, infecting Americans in four states and killing at least 80 in Mexico. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns of a "public health emergency."
"This virus has clearly a pandemic potential," says Margaret Chan, director general of WHO.
The disease itself sounds especially ominous, spreading quickly from human to human. It's "a completely novel virus," says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Indeed, the new strain is a mixture of human virus, bird virus, and pig viruses from all over the world. Experts say this new variant of swine flu seems particularly worrisome because people are getting sick without any contact with pigs. Even worse, young, healthy people are dying at a striking rate, a telltale sign of the worst flu epidemics.
(Swine flu fears aren't new in the United States. In February 1976, a 19-year-old army private at Fort Dix, New Jersey, died within 24 hours of becoming infected with swine flu. Soon, 500 soldiers were afflicted and the US government began a controversial nationwide vaccination campaign. Ultimately, some 40 million Americans were inoculated. As a result, several hundred people developed Guillain- Barré syndrome, a serious neurological condition, and the immunization program was stopped.)
What's going to happen this time? Without question, the disease will spread farther and wider. At this point, as the CDC says, it can't be contained or controlled.
What can you do to protect yourself? Experts offer a a few suggestions:
1. Wash Your Hands Frequently. It may sound obvious, but hand-washing with soap and water for around 20 seconds is the single best thing you can do (if you're going to go out into the world and interact with other human beings). The CDC estimates that 80 percent of all infections are spread by hands. If you can't wash your hands regularly, try hand-sanitizers with 60 percent alcohol content.
2. Practice "Social Distancing." That's the fancy term for staying away from other people if you're sick or if you're concerned that they may be infected. Again, it may sound obvious, but experts believe it's worth repeating: Isolation reduces your chances of getting infected or infecting others.
3. Recognize the Symptoms and Get Help. Swine flu symptoms are similar to regular flu: Fever, body aches, sore throat, cough, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy. If you don't feel well, seek medical attention. The current swine flu is resistant to two of four antiviral drugs approved for combating the flu. Symmetrel and Flumadine are apparently no use against this strain but Tamiflu and Relenza appear to work.
What are the chances of a global pandemic? "The situation is uncertain and unpredictable and likely to be a marathon more than a sprint," says Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No doubt, swine flu will dominate headlines in the days ahead. Every case will be carefully tracked and deservedly so.
For more information, the CDC has set up a toll-free hotline: 1-800-CDC-INFO. Or check out the CDC Website.
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