Flu giving you the blues?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Manor
  • 127th Public Health Officer
What's up with pigs getting the flu, and wasn't that some weird Oriental thing many years ago? Influenza (commonly called flu) has been around for several thousand years. In fact, birds, swine, and other animals have been getting the flu for thousands of years. Approximately half of the U.S. pig population has had swine influenza. 

Recent studies have shown that 15% to 25% of swine farmers probably have been infected with swine flu viruses, as well as about 10% of veterinarians. Cases of swine flu have most commonly occurred in people with direct exposure to pigs, but some cases of human-to-human transmission is possible. 

Seasonal outbreaks of the flu are caused by viruses that are already among people. Influenza is a contagious disease of the lungs that is usually spread (among humans) by infected persons coughing and sneezing. People with weakened immune systems (very young children or the elderly) have higher risks of getting the flu. Each particular type of flu virus is different and when there is a major change in its makeup a bad flu seasons occur. 

When an extreme change to the seasonal strains of flu occur, annually developed immunizations fall behind the curve which can lead to a pandemic because no one had any immunity to the new strain. This can make the new flu strain more severe and could change daily life for a time, including limitations on travel and public gatherings, such as the recent restrictions in Mexico. New flu shots can be developed to work against the new strains of flu, but it takes about four to six months to develop. 

What can you do to protect yourself? First, ensure you get your annual flu shot. Proper hand washing with warm soapy water and cough etiquette is particularly important in reducing the spread. People should cover their coughs and sneezes and if sick, they should stay away from others as much as possible. Also, practice good health habits, including eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient rest. Individuals should discuss health concerns with their health care provider, health department or other trusted sources. Finally, prepare as you would for any emergency, keeping a stock of essential supplies at home, such as appropriate food, water, medicines, and a thermometer.

Still worried? Public health officials will share information and prevention and control actions taken place in the community, state and nation. The World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and countries throughout the world are building on existing disease outbreak plans, including those developed for SARS, and a coordinated international effort is underway to develop vaccines and improve the detection and tracking of influenza viruses. 

Should there be reason for concern, health officials will advise the public about what they should do. They would describe the signs and symptoms of the specific disease, and provide steps such as practicing good health habits, proper hygiene, and other methods the public could take to protect themselves against infections. For more information, log on to www.cdc.gov.