Last updated: Sep 23, 2010
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One of my best friends called yesterday to ask how worried I am about the flu and whether she should be concerned. I told her that I am worried, a little, but I reminded her that the media are fanning our fears because they just love a good pandemic.


Theres an old newspaper saying, “If it bleeds, it leads” and heres the May 2009 update: It also leads if it sneezes, coughs, has a fever, or recently traveled to Mexico.

The facts: As Im writing this on Thursday afternoon, April 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) report that 50 people in New York have been confirmed as having the swine flu. The total number of confirmed cases in the United States on Thursday was 109 people in 11 states. Most U.S. cases are mild; from reports, it appears that most people get about as sick as you would when you have the seasonal flu, and recover from their symptoms readily. (Get the latest news here.)

So far, one death in the United States has been reported. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, stated that “From past experience, we also know that influenza may cause mild disease in affluent countries, but more severe disease, with higher mortality, in developing countries.” She also notes that the course of this pandemic is unpredictable and countries must “ramp up preparedness and response.”

Flu viruses are notorious shape-shifters that can mutate quickly, so its impossible to know exactly what course this pandemic will take.

As Dr. Chan says in her statement, “The biggest question, right now, is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start? It is possible that the full clinical spectrum of this disease goes from mild illness to severe disease. We need to continue to monitor the evolution of the situation to get the specific information and data we need to answer this question.”

Taming my flu fears
Writing about natural medicine for a living doesnt give me immunity against having a few of my own flu fears. First thing I did when I heard the possible pandemic talk was to look through my big carton of samples I keep to see if I had any immune-enhancing formulas. I did find a bottle of organic hand sanitizer that I am now using frequently.

I also emailed Martha Howard, MD, director of Wellness Associates of Chicago, Center for Advanced Integrative Environmental Medicine. Her wisdom has informed my writing for about a dozen years, and I asked her how worried she is about the flu. Shed just returned from Los Angeles, and heres what she shared:

“This will be my first day in the office since the outbreak, so I'll see. I'm sure everyone is worried. I just gave my daughter-in-law, who is principal of an elementary school with a largely Mexican first generation immigrant population, and who has twin 11-month-old sons, instructions on how to do a ‘clean room re-entry into their home. I told her to put her whole outfit in a black plastic bag in the back hall, go immediately to the shower, wash, and put on a clean outfit. Then take the bagged outfits at the end of the week and wash them in the hot water cycle, put them in a hot dryer, and dispose of the bag.”

Dr. Howards advice stems from an “abundance of caution,” (a phrase I heard President Obama use) and isnt something most of us need to practice unless were in similar circumstances. Here are her tips for the rest of the country.

Wash your hands
The most important preventive measure is the old standard: frequent hand washing for a good 30 seconds or so—with soap and water. Dont rub or touch your eyes when youre out in public and haven't washed your hands.Buy, carry and use the non-alcohol based ecologic hand sanitizers, says Dr. Howard. (The one I have and like is Bentley Organic Anti-Bacterial Hand Sanitizer). Public health officials recommend alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Take C
“One of the best immune boosters is still Vitamin C,” says Dr. Howard. Take at least 500 milligrams, with 6 to 8 ounces of water, 4 times a day, she advises. The herb, elderberry, has been proven to protect against the flu—but whether it confers protection against swine flu is unknown. Still, taking the black elderberry formula Sambucol, available at health food stores, might confer some protection.

Recognize the symptoms
Flu symptoms include any combination of these: headache, cough, sore throat, fever, nausea, dizziness, muscle aches. If youve got them, see your doctor ASAP, advises Dr. Howard.

Get treatment early
If you have severe symptoms, the prescription drug Tamiflu can be effective, says Dr. Howard, but only if you start it within 48 hours of feeling ill. “Some types of flu viruses are already resistant to Tamiflu, but the one that is causing the current outbreak hasn't developed resistance yet,” she adds. Public health officials warn that people with mild flu symptoms shouldnt take Tamiflu.

Try Chinese herbs
“I believe that probably the most effective treatment for flu is Chinese herbs,” says Dr. Howard. “Theyre effective in both killing the virus and helping resolve the flu symptoms. The best thing to take is a combination of two Chinese formulas. I use Yin Chiao Chieh Tu Pian, and Zhong Gan Ling. Take as follows: two to four Yin Chiao tablets twice a day, and four to six Zhong Gan Ling tablets three times a day. They should be taken with food.” Find these at ChineseHerbsDirect.com.

Seek care
If you have a high fever, feel so sick that you cant get out of bed, or are dehydrated, have someone take you to the emergency room, advises Dr. Howard.

Afterword: Because the flu pandemic is so volatile, its very possible that between the time I write and you read this, the situations will have changed. Check your states health department web site for updated information.

Worth noting: The New York City Health Department says that your doctor cant diagnose swine flu because tests available to them cant discern between normal seasonal flu and swine flu. Only a health departments public health lab can say whether a case is “probable” for swine flu, but the diagnosis must be confirmed by the CDC.