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Putting Swine Flu in Perspective

7 Facts to Consider if You're Fearful About Swine Flu

By Miranda Hitti
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

May 1, 2009 -- Swine flu is big news. Cases are rising in the U.S. and other countries, there's no vaccine, it's a brand-new virus, and it's teetering on the brink of a pandemic.

The Latest on
H1N1 Swine Flu

Swine flu has sickened at least 141 people in the U.S. and 365 people worldwide, according to the CDC and World Health Organization's tally of lab-confirmed swine flu cases as of Friday, May 1.

But those numbers are changing all the time; the CDC and WHO web sites are updated once daily.

Swine flu is serious, for sure. But have some people crossed the fine line between reasonable concern and unwarranted alarm?

A new poll from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that of the 1,067 participants, 59% said they're washing their hands more often and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in light of swine flu. That's in line with CDC recommendations. And school closings are appropriate if cases are confirmed in students or staff, according to the CDC.

But that same Harvard poll shows that 17% of participants said they are avoiding Mexican restaurants or grocery stores and 13% said they thought you could get swine flu from eating pork. You can't get swine flu from eating pork or any other foods, and there is no reason to avoid Mexican restaurants or other businesses.

There have been reports of people in the U.S. rushing to buy face masks. Glenn Taylor, a shift manager for a CVS/pharmacy store in the Atlanta area, says people have been asking for the masks all week. He says when he got some in today, he sold them all, 15 or 20 packages, each containing two masks.

"A lot of people have been asking about them all week," he tells WebMD. "Everybody is out. There was a run on hand sanitizer. We're out of that, too. I think it's mostly a few people who are really concerned, and they just want to be prepared."

Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for the CVS/pharmacy chain, adds that sales for such items have been brisk all across the country. "Current supply levels are low, and we do have some stores currently out of stock," DeAngelis says. “We are working with our suppliers to get more masks as well as the other items into our stores to help meet the increased demand."

But most people don't need masks at this point, says Michael Smith, MD, WebMD's chief medical editor, in his blog.

CNN reports that proms are being canceled, and in Alabama -- which isn't on the CDC's list of states with confirmed swine flu cases -- officials have reportedly canceled all high school sports events in light of swine flu concerns.

7 Reasons Not to Over Worry

After a solid week of scary headlines about swine flu, it's time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and regain perspective. Here are seven points to consider:

  1. Most swine flu cases have been mild, so far. Severe cases have been seen mainly in Mexico, for reasons that aren't yet clear. But most swine flu patients have recovered without being hospitalized.
  2. You're not defenseless against swine flu. Simple things -- washing your hands, not touching your mouth, eyes, or nose, and trying to avoid close contact with sick people -- can go a long way toward reducing your risk.
  3. Most swine flu cases so far have been pretty much like normal, seasonal flu. Swine flu and seasonal flu share symptoms, and spread the same way.
  4. How much do you worry about seasonal flu? Maybe you should give garden-variety flu a little more respect. In a typical U.S. flu season, an average of 36,000 people die of flu or flu complications, and about 200,000 people are hospitalized. Swine flu hasn't come anywhere close to that.
  5. Swine flu's future is unknown. No one knows where swine flu is headed -- for better or for worse. "You don't know if it's going to fizzle out in a couple weeks or become more or less virulent or severe in the diseases it causes," CDC Acting Director Richard Besser, MD, said on April 29. "If we could see into the future [that] would be absolutely wonderful, but that's not the case. That's why we're being aggressive" in seeking to limit swine flu's impact on human health.
  6. The world is more prepared than ever. Remember bird flu? When that was the "it" virus several years ago, the global health community ramped up its pandemic preparations. As a result of that work, "the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said on April 29.
  7. Pandemics aren't all deadly." If the World Health Organization declares swine flu a pandemic, that's all about the spread of the virus -- not the severity of the illness. In the past, some pandemics have been mild, while others have been severe, notes WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, adding that "people should act with common sense, not with panic."

Reporter Bill Hendrick contributed to this report.

SOURCES: Marsh, R. Archives of General Psychiatry, January 2009; vol 66: pp 51-63.

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