Q: How contagious will this virus be?
A: So far, this virus appears to be somewhat more contagious than the usual seasonal human flu virus. About a quarter of people who have had close exposure to someone with swine flu have gotten the virus. However, all flu viruses love cold weather: cold, dry air makes flu viruses both more contagious, and more likely to cause serious illness. Since this new virus began infecting large numbers of people in the northern hemisphere only in the spring and summer—in warm, moist air—it could become more contagious during the fall and winter.
Q: How serious is the illness caused by this virus?
A: The normal winter flu kills about one out of a thousand people who are infected with the virus. In the United States, that amounts to about 35,000 people every year. Early estimates indicate that the new swine flu virus may kill about 2 out of a thousand people, about twice as many as normal seasonal flu. However, there is reason to believe that it could cause more severe disease in the late fall and winter of 2009-2010.
How severe can a flu virus be? The worst pandemic of flu virus on record occurred in 1918-1919. That virus killed about three people out of a hundred people infected—thirty times as many as the normal seasonal flu virus, around the world. The new swine flu virus does not have some of the characteristics of the 1918-1919 virus that made it so deadly. On the other hand, it is like the 1918-1919 virus in two respects: first, it can infect cells deeper in the lungs, producing more severe lung damage in animals; second, it is more likely than the usual winter flu to cause serious illness in otherwise healthy young adults.
In late August, 2009, a presidential panel reported that swine flu could infect half of the U.S. population in the fall and winter of 2009, causing 1.8 million people to be hospitalized, 300,000 to require intensive care, and as many as 90,000 deaths—triple the number of deaths caused by the usual seasonal winter flu. In other words, the estimate the illness will be more severe than the usual winter flu, but nothing like as severe as the 1918-1919 pandemic. But the truth is that it is very hard to predict what will happen with flu viruses, because they can change their genes so rapidly.
Q: How do I know if I’ve caught swine flu?
A: The initial symptoms of this flu virus are like those of the regular flu: fever, muscle aches, runny nose, and sore throat. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may be more common with this swine flu than with the regular flu. If this epidemic hits your community and you develop flu-like symptoms, it is likely your doctor will take samples from your throat or material you cough up for testing.
Q: How do I protect myself?
A: Toprotect yourself from catching swine flu from others:
- Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand cleaners frequently. For a thorough hand washing, use soap, and scrub all parts of your hands, front and back, and between, for about 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”).
- Don’t touch your hands to any part of your face: if the virus is on your hands, it can spread to your throat and lungs from your nose and mouth, or even your eyes.
- When you greet people, don’t shake hands or exchange kisses. Instead, bump elbows, wave, or just say “Hi.”
- Avoid contact with people who are sneezing or coughing.
- To the extent you can do so, avoid crowded situations.
- Stay at least three feet away from others.If you are in public places, remember that when your hands touch what other people’s hands have touched, the virus could be passed to you. For example, on a bus, don’t hold on to an overhead strap or to a pole. Instead, wrap your arm around the pole to support yourself. When climbing stairs don’t hold on to the railing unless you absolutely have to.
Q: How do I protect others if I get sick?
A: If you develop symptoms that could be swine flu, like those mentioned just above, and if your local health department says there is an epidemic in your community, you should pay close attention to the specific advice of the health department. Our general advice is:
- If you are coughing and sneezing, stay at home! And at home, try to stay away from others as much as possible.
- If you can, try to stay in one room (and have others avoid that room).
- If you have more than one bathroom and it is practical to do so, you use one bathroom and everyone else in the household should use another.
- If you are coughing and sneezing, don’t sneeze into your hands. Instead use tissue and deposit the tissue in a wastebasket or toilet. Wash your hands immediately after.
- If you use a handkerchief, people putting it in the washing machine should be sure to wash their hands immediately after.Don’t shake hands with people, or kiss hello.
- If you have to go out, avoid crowded situations—public transportation, movie theaters, and the like.
Q: How long are people contagious?
A: Adults should be considered contagious until at least 7 days after the start of symptoms; with children, it may be 10 to14 days.
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