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Swine Flu Symptoms, Pandemics, and More

By Miranda Hitti

April 25, 2009 -- Swine flu news is spreading fast, with media reports buzzing about probable, confirmed, or possible cases in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York.

The story is moving quickly and WebMD is covering this breaking news story as it develops.

Meanwhile, let's get a few things straight on a practical level.

Swine flu symptoms:

If you're about to Google "swine flu symptoms," we can save you some trouble. There isn't a special set of symptoms unique to swine flu. It's pretty much flu, and it takes a lab test to tell whether it's swine flu.

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Here's what the CDC's web site says about swine flu symptoms: "The symptoms of swine flu in people are expected to be similar to the symptoms of regular human seasonal influenza and include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing. Some people with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea."

What is a pandemic?

Heard the word "pandemic" tossed around during coverage of the swine flu outbreak? That term isn't just the "it" buzzword of the moment -- it has a specific meaning in public health circles.

Here's the official definition from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): "A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza [type] A virus emerges for which there is little or no immunity in the human population, begins to cause serious illness, and then spreads easily person-to-person worldwide."

Now, if swine flu sounds to you like a pandemic, it's not quite that simple.

The World Health Organization (WHO) today said there are "gaps in knowledge" about the new swine flu virus -- which actually contains a mix of swine, human, and bird (avian) flu viruses into a brand-new virus. The WHO has asked all countries to be on the lookout for the new virus, but it's not yet ready to bump up the pandemic alert level from phase 3 to phase 4.

Phase what? The WHO has a scale ranging from phase 1 (low risk of a flu pandemic) to phase 6 (a full-blown pandemic is underway). Right now, the WHO is considering whether to shift from phase 3 (which means there is no or very limited human-to-human transmission) to phase 4 (defined as evidence of human-to-human transmission).

Once and for all, how many cases are there in the U.S.?

Nobody knows for sure -- and even if there was such a number, it's bound to change, and keep changing.

The official tally of confirmed cases reported to the CDC, as of April 25, are six cases in California and two in Texas. Beyond that, health officials in New York City have sent swabs from at least eight students at a private school in Queens to the CDC for further testing to see if they're swine flu. And earlier today, CNN reported that two confirmed cases are expected to be reported in Kansas. Plus, there are reports of a seventh case in California.

In a press conference today, CDC officials said it wasn't feasible to try to contain the virus, and that more cases are likely to turn up around the country -- and that so far, U.S. cases have been milder than those in Mexico.

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