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What you need to know about flu

Swine flu arrives in California, be informed, not scared

Posted: April 30, 2009 10:18 p.m.
Updated: May 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.

This spring, at a time that typically signifies the end of flu season, swine flu is dominating international headlines and causing widespread concern within the Santa Clarita Valley.

After more than 150 deaths and 2,000 illnesses from the virus in Mexico, the U.S. reported its first swine flu fatality on Wednesday - a 23-month old from Mexico who traveled to Texas with his family for treatment. The same day, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to the second-highest level, meaning it believes a global outbreak of the disease is imminent.

While this may seem shocking to most, for infection control specialists such as Dr. Wendy Clough, staff physician at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, the virus has been a long time coming.

"Influenza goes through major changes every few decades. When a new strain comes up and spreads throughout the world, it creates a pandemic strain," Clough said. "This virus has emerged somewhat different than previous viruses, but whether it's pandemic or not, we do not know. It's much too early. There's no evidence that it's any more dangerous than any other. Outside of Mexico, many cases have been relatively mild, with relatively low hospitalization."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, swine flu in humans can vary in severity from mild to severe. Between 2005 until January 2009, 12 human cases of swine flu were detected in the U.S. with no deaths occurring. However, swine flu infection can be serious.

In September 1988, a previously healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman in Wisconsin was hospitalized for pneumonia after being infected with swine flu and died eight days later. A swine flu outbreak in Fort Dix, N.J. occurred in 1976 that caused more than 200 cases with serious illness in several people and one death.

The technical term for this particular virus, branded a swine flu because it contains a component of influenza carried by pigs, is H1N1. Symptoms of the virus are similar to other influenzas - fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, even diarrhea and vomiting in some cases. The World Health Organization estimated the overall mortality rate of H1N1 is one to four percent.

H1N1 is droplet-born, which means it typically transmits three to six feet from infected sources. If a person carrying H1N1 coughs or sneezes into open air, it can be transmitted even further. That's why it's so important to be considerate of others if you have any flu-like symptoms, as Denise Bleak, RN of infection control at Newhall Memorial, illustrated.

"When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth or nose with your hand or a tissue. Then wash your hands," Bleak said. "Avoid close contact with people who are sick and if you're sick, stay home and away from people as much as possible."

If you are exhibiting symptoms and suspect you might have the swine flu, it is suggested that you call your healthcare provider and ask them for directive before coming to a heavily populated emergency room or trauma center, where the virus may spread.

At Newhall Memorial, swine flu would be tested for by taking a nasopharyngeal swab or aspirate and testing for influenza A.

"If you're influenza A negative, you're done with the testing process. You don't have swine flu," said Dr. Roger Der, Newhall Memorial laboratory co-director. "If you are influenza A positive, there are certain criteria you have to meet before that information is forwarded to public health labs for further testing."

That criteria, set by the CDC, defines a probable case as a person with an acute febrile respiratory illness who is positive for influenza A, but negative for H1 and H3 by influenza RT-PCR and a suspected case as a person with acute febrile respiratory illness with onset within seven days of close contact with a person who is a confirmed case of infection, or within seven days of travel to community either within the United States or internationally where there are one or more confirmed cases of infection, or resides in a community where there are one or more confirmed cases of infection.

Anti-influenza drugs Tamiflu and Relenza would be the usual protocol to treat H1N1 and prevent it from multiplying - the medications reduce symptoms and the period of time when the virus is infectious to other people.

"I would say, given that it's spreading fast, there's a reasonable likelihood that many people will encounter H1N1 over time. It's a moderate to serious threat, but I think some people are panicking. That's completely uncalled for at the present stage, but we have to follow it closely," Clough said. "It could settle down quickly. It's nothing that we haven't seen before."

Though Clough said it was way too early for SCV residents to start donning masks, there are preventative measures people can take that include washing hands consistently, eating a good diet, and getting plenty of exercise and sleep.

At Valencia Wellness Center, manager and homeopathy practitioner Kim Wahl has been fielding calls from concerned customers looking for natural solutions to preventing swine flu.

"There's a variety of different ways to look at it. What I'm telling my customers, any symptoms you have, you want to address immediately," Wahl said. "Grapefruit seed extract - which has viral, fungal, bacterial, and parasitical properties - addresses many flu-like symptoms and is completely non-toxic."

Two more Wahl recommendations include zinc lozenges and Zycam nasal swabs - the latter protects the nose, mouth, and eyes, all orifices that can contract the virus. For adults, Wahl said, taking Vitamin C on a daily basis can help by stimulating the adrenal glands, where the immune system is often compromised, while parents can give their children colostrums to boost their immunity.

"We're looking at society that runs hard, eats empty food, is dehydrated and mineral deficient," Wahl said. "You want to make sure you're eating good and staying hydrated, taking the supplements you need, and staying rested. You have to train your immune system to work right and ward off flu on its own."


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