FRIDAY, May 1, 2009 (Health.com) — You can’t miss the countless headlines about swine flu, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hysteria. But does this pandemic really threaten your health? We asked Belinda Ostrowsky, MD MPH, an expert at the Division of Infectious Disease at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, to help separate the helpful information from the hype.
What is the most important piece of information you could give people regarding swine flu?
Right now, people should not panic. Don't get too hyped up by the headlines and put this in perspective. Approximately 36,000 people a year die from the flu in the United States; there has been only one swine flu fatality here thus far. You’re more likely to die in a car accident. The reason the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are working so hard is because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That way, should this become a bigger issue, they’ll be on top of it.
Should I be doing anything differently?
People should be doing sensible things like washing their hands and covering their mouths when they cough—things you should always be doing. This is just the beginning and we have yet to see how this cluster of illness will evolve.
Just this week, Vice President Joe Biden said he would advise his family members to avoid confined spaces.
He’s overstepping things to say that places like the subway are not safe. At this point there is no recommendation to close the subway. If this were to become more widespread, city governments may suggest you stay away from congregate settings. That’s why some schools have been closed, just as a caution. Certainly everyone in both the private and public health care sectors is doing everything they can to lessen transmission.
What about my infant? Is it safe to take a baby on the subway?
Take the precautions you normally would with a small child. You wouldn’t want to expose them to tons of people in general—not just because of swine flu.
Should you be taking extra precautions if you're pregnant?
Nothing more than usual, but if you become symptomatic and you’re pregnant, you should certainly seek out your doctor.
If I've been in a crowded place or on public transportation, is it enough to wash my hands, or should I take a shower?
You really just need to wash your hands. Touching your mouth or nose with dirty hands is how a virus spreads. There’s no need to take extra showers.
Should I temporarily stop buying produce from Mexico?
No, swine flu is not food borne. In order to catch it you need to be in close proximity with [an infected person] who is coughing and sneezing.
Should I wear a mask?
No, the average person does not need to wear a mask.
I was planning on vacationing in Mexico in June. What’s the likelihood that this will blow over by then? Should I cancel my trip?
It’s very hard to know how this is going to unfold. Nobody has a crystal ball. At this point, the CDC says you should avoid traveling to Mexico if possible. But wait it out—you have time. Be vigilant and keep up with the news. It sounds like airlines and people in the travel industry are going to be a little more tolerant of any uncertainty in your plans. They don’t want to lose the business, especially in this economy.
What should I do if I start to get sick?
Don’t head straight to the emergency room; call your doctor instead. Most of the cases right now in the U.S. have been very mild. If everyone runs to the emergency room upon the first sign of flu-like symptoms, we're going to overrun the health-care system. It’s likely that we’re going to continue to find more cases because right now people are looking very hard for symptoms.
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