Everyone knows that the flu season will soon be upon us. The news about the H1N1 Swine Flu and just how serious an epidemic we may face this fall is relentless. So far, swine flu is not much more threatening than regular seasonal flu. However, more people are susceptible to it because it's new, and we lack immunity to the strain. ¬¥An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Ben Franklin said. How do we avoid the flu when one in four Americans is expected to become infected during this flu season? What can we do to protect ourselves?Vaccinate: Vaccines are the most powerful public health tool for the prevention of the flu. Government agencies are working closely with manufacturers to develop a Swine Flu vaccine. The new vaccine is expected to be ready for the fall, but no specific date has been announced. This year's regular flu vaccine does not include the H1N1 strain, but since multiple strains of the flu are expected, it's important to get both types of vaccines. (If you received the Swine Flu vaccine of 1976, note that the current virus is different enough that you will need a new vaccination.) It is important that specific groups be vaccinated just as soon as the vaccine is available. Immunity may take some time - you will not be protected immediately, and it is likely that two shots will be necessary. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) target groups include: •anyone under the age of 25, but over six months old; •25 to 64 year olds who are at higher risk because of chronic health disorders such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, or compromised immune systems; •pregnant women; •people who live with or care for children under six months old; and •those who work in healthcare or emergency medical services. While the swine flu epidemic has so far focused primarily on the young, it is often the elderly who also have asthma or other chronic lung disease, heart disease, and/or diabetes. Therefore, as is usually the case for flu vaccines, many over the age of 65 should be vaccinated. Also note that the vaccine is being recommended for pregnant women, and I am watching the literature to ensure that initial tests will confirm that it is safe. It's possible that there will initially be a shortage of supplies, but five different companies are working hard to meet the expected demand. The vaccines will likely be available from the government at no cost. It is likely that you will be given this vaccine, not from your doctor, but rather from centralized distribution centers in your community. Treat your symptoms: Antiviral drugs (such as Tamiflu) are used to treat the flu and work by preventing the viruses from reproducing in the body. They are prescription medicines and come in different forms including pills, liquid and an inhaled powder. If you get sick, antiviral drugs can make your illness milder, make you feel better faster, and help to prevent serious complications. However, these antiviral drugs have been overused in many who probably did not actually have H1N1. The over-prescribing of any infection medication can lead to the development of resistant strains of the virus. In the coming epidemic, antivirals are likely to be more tightly controlled. They will be available and effective for those with severe illness or documented swine flu. Control the Spread: The flu, like other respiratory diseases, is spread from one person to another. Droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person land on surfaces or directly enter another ¬¥host.¬° Here are some specific tips to remember: •Hand washing is especially important during pandemics, both for the healthy and for the ill. Wash your hands frequently, using soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. (An antibacterial soap is no better than regular soap, since a virus, not bacteria, causes the flu.) Washing without soap does not help! •Avoid making contact with potentially infected surfaces (e.g., door knobs, railings, desk tops, elevator buttons, telephones, etc.). •Frequently clean surfaces where germs can sit, using an antiseptic wipes. •Even when you're careful, germs end up on the hands. Avoid putting your hands anywhere near your eyes, nose or mouth. •Do not directly share food with others, and avoid shared serving utensils. •Stay home if you get sick, and limit contact with others. This fall and winter will be good times to purposely avoid crowds or gathering places. •Keep tissues on hand. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing with either a new tissue, or with the crook of the elbow or upper arm and shoulder. Do not use your hands, because that will spread your own germs. Throw the tissue away after using it once. •See your physician early if you should become ill with flu-like symptoms, which include fever, cough, headache and bodyache. As always, be well, and please take extra precautions during this upcoming flu season! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: September 11, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 21