Here are answers to some basic questions about the emerging swine flu outbreak. Answers are based on information from the Kentucky Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Question: What is "swine flu?"
Answer: It's another form of influenza that happens to cause respiratory disease in pigs. Another form affects birds. People usually aren't affected by swine flu, although human infections can occur. This swine flu strain — a mixture of genetic material from human, swine and bird influenzas — can spread from person to person, which raises public health concerns.
A swine flu scare swept the United States in the mid-1970s, but an epidemic never occurred. Health authorities say that could happen again, so they must take precautions.
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Q: How serious is it?
A: The severity varies, and about 150 fatalities have occurred in Mexico. On the other hand, routine seasonal flu kills more than 30,000 people a year in the United States, including some young, otherwise healthy people. Precaution is warranted.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: They're similar to those of regular human flu — cough, sore throat, body aches, chills, fatigue, fever. If you're experiencing many of these, call your doctor. But don't overload hospitals and doctors' offices with unnecessary visits. If you're coughing and sneezing but have no fever and body aches, you might not need to see a doctor.
Q: Can I get swine flu by eating pork or pork products?
A: No. The Centers for Disease Control says swine flu mainly is spread just like regular seasonal flu — human-to-human contact through the coughing and sneezing of infected people.
Q: If I had a flu shot this year, will it protect me?
A: No. There is no flu vaccine now available that protects against this swine flu strain. The CDC is working on a vaccine, but it will take months to make.
Q: What precautions should I take?
A: Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth; avoid surfaces that might be contaminated with virus.
Otherwise, continue your regular activities. Health authorities say that, as of now, there is no reason to panic or start avoiding crowds and wearing surgical masks.
However, the U.S. State Department said Monday evening that Americans should avoid non-essential travel to Mexico.
Q: Is swine flu treatable?
A: Yes. The drugs Tamiflu or Relenza can treat or prevent infection. They are available in pharmacies, and the CDC is making additional amounts available to Kentucky and other states to be ready if needed.
Q: Are pigs on farms in Kentucky or other U.S. states infected with the virus?
A: No. According to Kentucky and federal authorities, there's no evidence that swine populations in this country are affected now.
Q: Where did this swine flu virus come from?
A: No one knows yet. Cases have been concentrated in Mexico, but health authorities don't know whether the virus emerged there or came from somewhere else.
Q: Why have reported cases in the United States generally been mild, while patients in Mexico have died?
A: It's too early to tell. Authorities say it could indicate differences in the disease itself, or it might be an early statistical aberration. Serious cases could emerge in the United States if the disease continues.
Q: What should I do if I've recently traveled to Mexico?
A: Monitor yourself and your travel companions for flu-like symptoms. If symptoms develop within seven days of your return, seek evaluation by a health care provider as soon as possible. Be sure to tell your doctor about your recent travel and suggest testing for influenza. Stay home from work, school and other public places until you are feeling well.