Thursday, April 30, 2009

Whatever you call this flu, you don't want to get it

by Terri Hansen
Environment and Science Reporter

The mouthful H1N1, or “swine flu” that everyone is talking about is spreading to states throughout the United States. But the fact that there have been no reported cases in Indian Country “speaks to our efforts” to address the issue head on, a spokeswoman for the Indian Health Service said.

The key word here is reported – there may be cases in Indian Country, but none were reported as of late afternoon April 30.

IHS and tribal leaders have mobilized and are coordinating efforts with federal and state public health departments and emergency service offices to ensure rapid influenza tests and cultures are in place along with adequate supplies of anti-viral medications, and early surveillance, said the spokeswoman, who asked she not be identified. Other calls to IHS offices were not returned.

H1N1 is an influenza A virus that can cause a range of symptoms, usually fever, cough, sore throat, headaches and muscle aches, fatigue, and occasionally vomiting and diarrhea. So far most of those infected have had mild disease, but some have had more severe illness, and there has been one death. Some groups, such as pregnant women and young children or those with chronic conditions may be at higher risk.

The current flu has not grown into pandemic proportions, but a Phase 5 alert by the World Health Organization has prompted concern that a pandemic is imminent. The U.S. has declared a public health emergency, as are a growing number of states.

Yet Karen Hunter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says this current flu isn’t particularly virulent. “It’s just that it’s a new strain, and the human population hasn’t built up a resistance.”

But pandemics are caused by new flu strains. Hunter says 36,000 deaths are caused by the flu in any given year, “and the CDC is not expecting this flu to exceed that.”

There is confusion about whether this virus, originally said to be of swine, bird, and human origin, is only swine, as is now claimed. U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said as of April 28 there is no indication that any pig from the United States has been affected. And whether or not this is a pig virus, eating pork won’t give it to you.

Flu is caused by airborne spread of droplets, and everyday actions, such as avoiding contact with someone with the disease, can keep you from catching it. While there’s no need for panic, families need to take sensible precautions.

Seek medical care if you or someone in your family shows symptoms of the flu. Young children may not have typical symptoms, but may show signs of low activity and have difficulty breathing.

The CDC recommends you stay home when you are sick, wash your hands frequently with soap or detergents, keep a six foot distance from people who may be sick, and use tissues or sneeze into your elbow to prevent airborne spread by droplets.

The CDC ( and the federal government’s consolidated pandemic influenza web site ( are good sources of information about pandemic flu. Those without access to a computer can call the CDC’s toll-free hotline: 1-800-CDCinfo (1-800-232-4636). The number for the hearing impaired is 1-888-232-6348.