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What You Need to Know About Swine Flu

  • November 5, 2009

Q & A with Dr. Frank J. Bia, AmeriCares Medical Director and Yale Professor of Infectious Disease

As we move deeper into the 2009-2010 flu season, AmeriCares is working hard to protect poor and uninsured families against the H1N1 swine flu and related infections.

We’ve sent infection control supplies such as masks, disinfectants and gloves to free clinics across the country. AmeriCares has also delivered millions of dollars worth of medicines to treat flu symptoms and complications such as pneumonia that can quickly turn deadly. What’s more, we’re working with health care providers here at home and around the world on emergency outbreak preparedness.

Guiding our efforts has been AmeriCares Medical Director Dr. Frank Bia, MD, MPH. An expert in infectious diseases, Dr. Bia joined AmeriCares after a 30-year career as a professor of medicine and infection specialist at the Yale School of Medicine. A dedicated physician, Dr. Bia also cares for patients at AmeriCares Free Clinics in Connecticut.

To help you take care of your family, Dr. Bia has answered some common questions he’s received from both his patients and AmeriCares supporters. 

Swine Flu Basics 

What is swine flu?

Swine flu is the common name for the H1N1 virus, a new strain of Influenza A to distinguish it from the seasonal flu.

Why should I be concerned? People get the flu all the time.

Swine flu (H1N1) moves fast and is not behaving like a typical seasonal flu. The current swine flu outbreak is the type of virus, H1N1, as seen during the flu pandemic of 1918 when more than twenty million people died. Even though we have advanced medicines today, the risk is still great – particularly for the poor and uninsured. Our country could face outbreaks of swine flu and seasonal flu at the same time, making it more difficult to contain and treat the diseases.

What are swine flu symptoms?

Swine flu symptoms are similar to other strains of flu – body aches, fatigue, headache and chills. However, early reports show that high fevers are less common, while nausea and diarrhea are more common with swine flu.

With increased diarrhea, people should take extra care to stay hydrated – drink lots of fluids, eat clear soups and broths and take fever-reducing medicines. It’s also important to be very strict with hygiene practices, especially caregivers who come in contact with bodily waste.

What makes swine flu different from other strains?

In up to 50% of cases, patients didn’t have the high fever that usually associated with the flu.  In fact, there may have been no fever at all.  That means people can be sick with swine flu and contagious for longer periods of time than expected. The longer someone waits to get medical care, the more likely they are to die or get seriously ill.

How widespread is swine flu?

Swine flu is considered a global pandemic. It’s been reported in 168 countries worldwide and over 5,000 people have died.

How Swine Flu is Spread    

How can I catch swine flu?

Swine flu is airborne and also contagious from contact with mucus and bodily waste. Exposure to someone with swine flu could infect you, especially if they are coughing or sneezing. You could also catch swine flu by direct contact with someone who is sick. Parents with sick children should be especially careful with diapers and keeping their hands and households clean. Don’t forget to clean toys and other items little ones might put in their mouths!

What can I do to prevent catching the flu?

Good hygiene is the most important part of prevention. Wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand gel, keep surfaces and bathrooms clean. Use a tissue to sneeze or cough – and don’t be shy about telling someone to do the same. Using a simple surgical mask when caring for sick children or others also helps prevent airborne spread of the virus.

Can I get swine flu from eating or preparing pork?

No. Swine flu is not transmitted through food. But always be safe when serving pork and be sure the internal temperature is at least 160ºF to kill all possible germs.

Can I contract swine flu from household pets?

You cannot contract swine flu from dogs, cats and other typical household pets (except pot-bellied pigs, of course). There are no documented cases of animal to human transmission of the H1N1 virus. In fact, the only cross-species infection was from a human to a pig.

Can I get swine flu from a swimming pool or hot tub?

Swine flu is transmitted by coming into contact with mucus or other respiratory discharge from an infected person, typically by coming into contact with someone who is coughing, sneezing or not following safe hand hygiene practices. 

What To Do if You or a Loved One is Sick       

What should I do if I think I have swine flu?

Stay home, rest and keep hydrated. Be sure to treat your symptoms early, as flu can get much worse very quickly. In most cases, treating flu symptoms is enough.

How do you treat the flu?

The first step is to treat symptoms with common over-the-counter medicines and home remedies. Stay warm and drink lots of liquids. Fever reducing medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with fever control, headaches and body aches. Rehydration drinks that replenish electrolytes and anti-diarrhea medicines help with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

If you don’t get better within a few days, please see your doctor. There are effective medicines to combat swine flu and related infections. If you or someone under your care has a high temperature, shortness of breath, watery diarrhea, bluish skin tone or discolored mucus, you should seek medical attention right away.

Are there medicines to treat swine flu?

There are anti-viral medications that work very well against swine flu; the most common is Tamiflu. The disease is highly treatable. Ask your doctor which medication is right for you.

When should I seek medical attention?

If you or someone under your care has a high temperature, shortness of breath, watery diarrhea, bluish skin tone or discolored mucus, you should seek medical attention right away.

Special Health Concerns, Children and Pregnancy   

I have young children, is there anything I need to look out for?

Watch your children’s energy level and fluid intake. If they are drinking less or seem spacey, be on the safe side and take their temperature. Be sure to take extra precautions by having your children wash their hands frequently, particularly after going to the bathroom and before eating.

I think my child might have the flu. What should I do?

During flu season, it’s important to have pediatric fever medicines, rehydration drinks that replenish electrolytes and anti-diarrhea medicines on hand.

I am pregnant and very concerned. Can you explain why pregnant women are at high risk and what to do about it?

When you are pregnant, your body does a number of things to help you carry your baby to full term that impact the strength of your immune system. Unfortunately, this leaves you more vulnerable to contracting swine flu and increases the severity of your symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued serious warnings for pregnant women and are strongly recommending they be vaccinated. Call your doctor right away if you become ill. People who receive early treatment recover more quickly and have fewer complications.

I have elderly parents. What do I need to know?

If your parents get sick, they can get very disoriented or dehydrated, so it’s important to give them fever-reducing medicine and lots of liquids. If they live in a nursing home or are in long-term care, there are strict infection control procedures for flu outbreaks. You should contact the facility for further details.

I have a heart condition; do I need to be careful with swine flu?

Fever can occur with swine flu. That can be dangerous because it can drive up your heart rate. Fever-reducing medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help.

I have asthma, what do I need to know?

People with asthma are at higher risk for lung infections and swine flu can trigger severe asthma attacks. Pay close attention to your mucus or anything you cough up (sputum). If it’s discolored, that’s a sign of a potential infection.

H1N1 Vaccination Availability Recommendations and Vaccine Concerns   

I get a flu shot every year, does that mean I’m immune?

No. The seasonal flu shot will not protect you from swine flu. As swine flu is a newly introduced virus, it wasn’t part of the recommended flu vaccine.

Will there be a swine flu vaccine?

Yes. There are currently 5 companies producing vaccines which are typically available through your personal physician, local health clinic or at vaccine clinics at schools, nursing homes and pharmacies.

Is the swine flu vaccine thimerosal-free? Does it contain mercury?

FluMist nasal spray and single-syringe shots are thimerosal-free vaccines and do not contain mercury.

Is the swine flu vaccine safe for me and my children?

Yes, the swine flu vaccine is safe. Over 10,000 children and adults participated in clinical trials and there were no serious adverse reactions reported. As is the case with all flu shots, people who are allergic to eggs should not receive the vaccine. People with other health concerns should discuss options with their physician.

Is the swine flu vaccine safe for pregnant women?

Pregnant women are at high risk for swine flu, have higher mortality rate than other patients and have reported among the worst complications and severe symptoms. According to the CDC, pregnant women have a fourfold increase of being hospitalized compared with the general population. The swine flu vaccine is similar to the seasonal flu vaccine which has safely been administered to millions of pregnant women over decades.

What about back to school vaccines?

Swine flu weakens immune defenses, so it’s critical for children to be protected with routine vaccinations. Childhood immunizations include a pneumonia vaccine called “conjugated pneumococcal vaccine”. A child would typically have one or more doses depending upon their age, so check with your pediatrician to make sure their vaccinations are up to date. There is no doubt a child who is up to date on all their shots is better protected against influenza and its serious consequences, such as pneumonia.

Who is prioritized for the vaccine?

• Students, teachers and staff grades, K – 12 

• Children under the age of six and child care workers 

• Pregnant women

• Adults under the age 65 who have certain chronic medical conditions 

• Health care and emergency services workers

• Adults over the age of 65

How AmeriCares is Helping   

What is AmeriCares doing to help control swine flu?

AmeriCares response to swine flu is threefold, with efforts to prevent, control and treat the disease. AmeriCares is working hard to protect families across the U.S. against H1N1 and related infections. Since the beginning of the swine flu outbreak, AmeriCares has been sending infection control supplies such as masks, disinfectants and gloves to free clinics across the country. Clinics affiliated with AmeriCares fill a critical need for the growing number of uninsured Americans. AmeriCares has also been delivering millions of dollars worth of medicines to treat flu symptoms and complications, such as pneumonia, that can quickly turn deadly.

In addition to our extensive efforts in the United States, AmeriCares regularly sends medicines and medical supplies to help save lives and restore health in countries that have limited health care resources due to disasters, civil conflict or crippling poverty. Among other things, we’ve delivered disinfectants, gloves and masks to prevent and help control the spread of the disease to countries such as El Salvador, Mexico, Pakistan and Tanzania. To treat swine flu symptoms, AmeriCares has sent medicines to reduce fever, nausea, diarrhea and body aches typically associated with the flu. This medical aid helps treat patients as well as reduces the risk that the disease will become a stronger, more deadly strain as the pandemic grows.

What can I do to help?

In addition to keeping your family healthy, you may be in a position to help others. For each $25 you donate, AmeriCares can deliver $875 of medical aid.

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