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Area residents were urged this week to take precautions to minimize the risks of contracting H1N1 Influenza, commonly called “swine flu,” even as authorities were suggesting that the virus wasn’t as serious as originally feared.
At least three cases of H1N1 had been diagnosed in Virginia as of Monday, the latest involving a student at Washington and Lee University. The Central Virginia Health District stated that more cases would likely be diagnosed, including in this area. “We want you to keep in mind that so far this virus spreads, causes illness, is treated, and is prevented just like the seasonal flu that we experience each year,” a press release from the Health District stated.
The first two patients identified in Virginia were an adult male from eastern Virginia and an adult female from central Virginia. Each had traveled to Mexico, both had mild illnesses and were recovering well, and neither required hospitalization.
“Our local health districts are working in close collaboration with their community partners in monitoring developments and providing guidance,” stated State Health Commissioner Karen Remley, M.D., MBA. “We remain in contact with clinicians, hospitals, and pharmacists to furnish them with up-to-the-minute care and treatment guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The current H1N1 influenza outbreak is caused by an influenza A virus not previously detected in humans or animals. Symptoms are similar to those of seasonal flu and typically include fever, cough and sore throat. Additional symptoms may include headache, chills and fatigue. Persons with H1N1 flu are contagious for up to seven days after the onset of illness and possibly longer if they are still symptomatic.
Dr. Remley advised anyone with these symptoms to protect themselves, their families and their neighbors by:
• staying home from work or school and limiting their contact with others to keep from infecting them;
• calling their health care providers or local health department before seeking care so that the necessary infection control measures can be put in place;
• covering their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze and throwing the tissue in the trash after use;
• washing their hands often with soap and water, especially after they cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners also are effective;
• limiting close contact with sick people; and
• preventing the spread of germs by not touching eyes, nose or mouth.
She said the virus had made its way to Virginia “and it’s here to stay.”
Dr. David Alligood, medical director of the emergency department at Bedford Memorial Hospital, stated that the virus can make you feel like “you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”
He said it’s characterized by normal flu-like symptoms including cough, congestion, runny nose, high temperature and muscle aches and those who have it may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. “For most people, the recommendation is that you probably just need to avoid being around people for a week to 10 days ... that’s just so you don’t cough or sneeze on somebody else,” Dr. Alligood said.
He added, however, that if someone is significantly short of breath, they should go to the doctor or emergency room.
Dr. Alligood said that the hospital had tested several patients for the flu, but those tests had come back negative. Among those were a couple of patients who had been in Mexico City and wanted to be tested to make sure they were safe. He said if a test comes back positive for influenza, it is then sent on to the CDC for testing to see if it is the H1N1 strain.
There is some belief that the virus could diminish now, but see a resurgence in the fall, during the normal flu season, according to Dr. Alligood. He said those most vulnerable to the virus are infants and senior citizens.
He said the flu has been widely tracked for several reasons, including the fact that it is “off-season.” Of course there has also been numerous references to a flu pandemic that occurred in 1918, killing millions.
“It is unusual to have flu coming through this time of year,” he said.
“We don’t know how big it will get,” Dr. Alligood added. “It just takes one person going to a certain area and it can spread.”
And while now the issue may appear to be overblown, he said “two or three days ago no one knew (what would happen).”
“The flu can be deadly, but for the majority of people it is not,” Dr. Alligood stated.
He said if a case is discovered in an area, the main focus is making sure that any amplification of that is nullified.
Some area organizations were already taking steps to do just that, even though no local cases have been diagnosed. On Sunday, at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in Bedford, precautionary measures taken included not distributing the consecrated wine at Mass and substituting the Head Nod of Peace for the Handshake of Peace.
The American Red Cross sent out a release stating that it was monitoring the developing situation with the swine flu outbreak and that it was in close contact with federal and state officials, including the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is a serious situation that has the potential to spread, and it is a good time for families, businesses and organizations to follow good public health practices and to review and update their preparedness plans,” said Scott Conner, senior vice president of Preparedness and Health & Safety Services at the American Red Cross. “Taking steps to prepare for potential emergencies in advance can go a long way in making families feel safer.”
Children need to know how to properly wash their hands to prevent the spread of germs. The Scrub Club (www.scrubclub.org) a Web site created by the Red Cross and the National Sanitation Foundation, is an online tool to teach kids how to wash their hands and why it’s important.
The Red Cross stated that if families are ever asked to stay home during this outbreak, it’s important to have a plan and supplies in place before that happens. The Red Cross recommends:
Stock extra food, water and supplies at home to reduce the need to go out should swine flu become more widespread, limiting potential for exposure to the virus.
Be sure to include household necessities such as laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc. Select foods that are easy to prepare and store.
Make sure you have an adequate supply of essential medications and medical items for all family members. Include non-prescription medications as well.
An information hotline on the swine flu has been set up at (877) ASK-VDH3, or (877) 275-8343.