Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine Flu-What you need to know

Everybody's talking about Swine Flu, and in tried-and-true fashion, all the talk is starting to cause a panic. In this day and age of snippets and sound-bites, people are not armed with enough knowledge to react intelligently to this potential pandemic.

That's a scary word, I know. We hear pandemic, and images of dirty hospitals full of the dead and dying fill our heads. Don't let your imagination run away with you; that's how we get massive freak-outs. But, you do need to know that the WHO (which is the World Health Organization) has recently classified this strain of Swine Flu as a phase 4 outbreak, which means it has reached pandemic alert status.

But, what does the term "pandemic" mean? Put in simple terms, a pandemic occurs when a strain of virus mutates into a form that is more easily transferred from human to human, and it spreads over a wide area of the population. The main reason the Avian Flu has not been classified a pandemic is because it still only spreads rarely from human to human, and really is only passed from birds to humans and back again. This strain of Swine Flu, A/H1N1, has now gone past simply being transmitted by infected pigs, and has started to spread from human to human in the same way that the regular strains of influenza are spread, through coughing, sneezing, and touching things that have been infected with the virus from a person who has it. It is not airborn, but is spread through transmission of infected fluids. You cannot get it from just being breathed on by a person who has it, and you cannot get it from eating pork of pork products. It is still not being spread easily, and the outbreak is very localized, which keeps it from being a pandemic.

This strain began in Mexico and has been spreading there for weeks, where cases seem to be much more serious. The WHO has started to take measures to isolate this outbreak, but most feel this is too little, too late; it has already jumped the borders into the US, New Zealand, and several other countries, though the cases here have been less severe so far. Containment is no longer really possible, but isolation and treatment is, and that is now proceeding. The change in classification to phase 4 (pandemic alert status) means that restrictions will be toughened and alerts heightened, especially on those travelling to and from Mexico, though no borders are being closed completely.

Here's the truly important part: DO NOT PANIC. Though the symptoms of swine flu are just like symptoms from other flus: coughing, runny nose, fever, sore throat, and in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea, you don't need to rush to the hospital the next time you sneeze. If you have recently traveled to Mexico or have been in contact with someone who has and you feel these symptoms, get yourself checked out. But, if you haven't, don't worry about it. Swine flu is completely survivable, and there is absolutely NO NEED TO PANIC. You may have to cancel your vacay in Cabo, but you don't need to start wearing a mask to work. Wash your hands, cover your nose when you sneeze, and just be sensible.

Some links for more info:
The WHO's Swine Flu Page
The CDC's Swine Flu Page
Time Magazine's 5 Things You Need to Know About Swine Flu
WHO Pandemic Phases outlined

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