There's little you can do to prepare for swine flu

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Like a hurricane building in strength before landfall, there's no doubt about the potential for H1N1 influenza, commonly called swine flu, to hit hard in the United States this flu season.

So, until a vaccine is developed, what can you do to improve your chances of staving off infection? Eat more vegetables? Take over-the-counter concoctions that purport to improve your immune system?

Is there anything we can do now?

"The short answer is no," said Dr. Eric Toner, senior associate at UPMC's Center for Biosecurity. "There is no magic pill.

"Like seasonal flu, a significant percentage of people will get sick. In a pandemic year, even more will get sick," said Dr. Toner, who specializes in flu-related issues, particularly hospital preparedness to deal with infected people.

"In terms of reducing the risk of getting infected right now, the most important thing is to stay away from people who are sick."

One of the worst things to do for your health in general is to worry about the H1N1 virus, according to Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

"Stress in general has a lot of health effects that aren't good," Dr. Dixon said. "Worrying about these things, taking some crazy diets, are not in your best interest. The best answer is to go about life as usual. Stress is not good for your health ... so just take life as it comes and enjoy it."

Moreover, he said, "I'm not one of the big believers [that] the sky is falling. We always have deaths and those who become seriously ill from the flu but the cases [of H1N1] we've seen were not as severe as they were in the flu season.

"We need to be cautious about predicating we're all going to get terribly ill," Dr. Dixon said. "I may be wrong, but I think I'm right."

First confirmed in North America in the spring and now found throughout the world, the H1N1 virus is spreading from person to person, probably in much the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It differs from seasonal flu in that fewer humans appear to have antibodies to combat it, meaning more people will become infected, Dr. Toner said. Because of that, it stands to reason that a similarly higher percentage will become seriously ill and die than in an average flu season.

"So far, there's nothing we're seeing in the virus that's particularly unusual or in any way more severe for an individual than seasonal flu," Dr. Toner said. "What we're going to see in this flu season is a lot more people getting sick than in an average flu year and the outbreak will hit sooner."

Each year in the United States, an average of 36,000 people die from flu-related complications and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related causes. As of Friday, 353 people had died and 5,514 people had been treated for H1N1 flu this year in hospitals in the United States, according to the CDC.

How much higher those numbers will rise is anyone's guess, particularly because the vaccine's effectiveness is unknown. The CDC has estimated that, depending upon the vaccine's efficacy, between 90,000 to several hundred thousand Americans could die from the virus over the next two years.

Of those hospitalized in an average flu season, more than 90 percent of deaths and about 60 percent of hospitalizations occur in people older than 65, the CDC reported. But in the case of the H1N1 virus, there have been relatively few cases and no deaths reported in the age group older than 64, the CDC reported.

That's because some people born before the 1950s already were infected with a previous flu with similarities to the H1N1 virus and therefore appear to have more antibodies than younger people, Dr. Dixon said.

Because of that, when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available, people age 65 or older will have the lowest priority under the recommended guidelines issued last week by the CDC.

Dr. Toner agrees with Dr. Dixon -- worrying won't help anything. We'll just have to wait and see what transpires.

"For the average person, I don't think this [virus] requires any extraordinary concern," Dr. Toner said. "In terms of the average person in otherwise good health, the risk from this is extraordinarily small."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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