By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
Healthnotes Newswire (April 30, 2009)—Everywhere you look are scary headlines about the recent spread of swine flu (influenza). But many people don’t realize that swine flu is primarily newsworthy because it is a new virus, so health officials don’t yet have a strategy for controlling spread and optimizing treatment. It is not a danger to the majority of people, whose best defense is to go about their regular business, protecting their health in the same simple, practical ways they always do.
Putting it in perspective
The swine flu is so called because the virus partly originated in pigs, though it also contains bird (avian) and human genes. You may hear swine flu referred to as H1N1, which is how its genetic make-up is described. It is the genes in a virus that determine how infectious it is, how easily it spreads from person to person, and the symptoms of the illness it causes.
Swine flu generally causes typical flu symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, coughing, sore throat, vomiting, and headaches. Like other influenzas, this strain may be serious if not managed properly. While swine flu is a concern for public health officials worldwide, it may help to consider the recent outbreak in the context of a typical flu season, which runs from November through March. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people die from influenza infection in the United States every year. At this point in the swine flu outbreak, fewer than 1,000 people have died from the infection, worldwide.
Also comforting is that we are much better prepared for a serious flu outbreak than in previous years. Two antiviral medications effective against swine flu are available though standard healthcare channels, we have more supportive medical care available than in years past, and we can coordinate a response to a flu outbreak more easily. And it helps to recognize that pork itself is not dangerous. It is safe to continue eating pork, so long as you follow standard, safe-food handling practices: avoid raw or undercooked pork and avoid cross-contamination between raw and cooked pork.
Prevention is the best cure
What can you do to stay healthy? “Plenty,” says Alan R. Gaby, MD, noted author and physician, and chief science editor at Aisle7. “People tend to focus on the frightening aspects of a flu outbreak that are out of our control, but there are many simple, practical things you can do, from hand-washing to keeping your disease-fighting defenses in top shape with a healthy diet and regular exercise.” Practice the following strategies to help keep you and your family flu-free.
• Wash your hands often. Use regular soap with warm water, and wash for 20 full seconds. (About the time it takes to sing the Alphabet Song.)
• Take your time. When you hand wash, scrub around your nails and the backs of your hands.
• Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizers to be used in a pinch.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, which prevents contaminating your hands and spreading the germs to other surfaces you touch.
• Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, which can spread germs.
• Keep your diet healthy. Antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits—such as broccoli, sweet peppers, carrots, citrus fruits, blueberries, pomegranate, and green leafy vegetables (such as spinach)—can improve your immune function and overall health.
• Get more D. Insufficient levels of vitamin D in the body may make us more susceptible to infections, so try eating more D in dairy, eggs, fatty fish (such as salmon), and fortified foods, and consider taking a supplement if you feel your diet may be lacking and you do not get small, regular amounts of sunlight.
Finally, if you are sick, stay home. If you think you have the flu, call your doctor immediately. Antiviral medications work best when taken within two days of getting sick.
(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Swine Influenza (Flu). Available at: www.cdc.gov/swineflu; Virol J 2008:5:29; Age Ageing 2008;37:121-2; Epidemiol Infect. 2006;134:1129-40)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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