What’s New with Swine Flu: Keep Your Family Safe & Have a Laugh Too

What do you do when you hear “global pandemic?” Is it time to build a bunker? Should you and your family lock yourself in with enough PB&J for weeks of sustenance? The novel H1N1 virus commonly known in the US as swine flu has officially been deemed a global pandemic. Somehow, though, the initial flutter seems to have died down. Parents now alternate between worrying about how to protect their families from this illness and wondering if they should purposefully expose their children now when the virus is “mild.”

Though the media buzz has calmed a bit and my friends are surprised to hear it, our pediatric practice in San Franciscofashion-swine-flue-mask1 is seeing huge numbers of children infected with swine flu. Since it is clear that this virus will be with us for some time, I will review what we know about the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. A strain of flu that infects pigs has mutated so that it can make humans sick, and also be transmitted between humans. It has spread across borders and has caused human-to-human transmission in many countries. It was officially elevated to the level of a “global pandemic,” by the World Health Organization in early June.

It is now clear that this strain of flu will cause illness in tens or hundreds of thousands of people, but that most people who get sick will have a mild to moderate illness. Experts are debating the likelihood of the current virus mutating to a form that is much more virulent by the fall or winter, but the virus may well stay mild. Only time will tell the extent and severity of the 2009 H1N1 influenza.

Being on the front line of a pandemic is quite an experience, and at times I am tempted to feel a little nervous myself. At the moment, however, the best thing that all of us can do is use common sense, stay informed, and, as usual: don’t panic.

Here are some basic facts about this flu virus so far. Things continue to change: please visit a reliable source like the CDC’s website for up-to-date information.

  • The symptoms of this swine flu are the same as “regular” seasonal flu: fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, and body aches. Some people have vomiting or diarrhea and headache along with these symptoms.
  • So far the cases in the US have been mild, but there have been deaths, mostly in people with chronic health conditions.
  • Many people do not know that seasonal influenza causes an average of 35,000 deaths yearly. These deaths are mostly in the elderly.
  • The virus spreads in the same way that seasonal flu spreads: mainly from person to person through coughing and sneezing.
  • The swine flu germ can also be spread by touching an object or surface contaminated by the virus. Some germs can live on surfaces for up to 2 hours.
  • The swine flu virus cannot be transmitted by eating pork products.
  • People with the swine flu may be contagious one day before getting symptoms and up to 7 or more days after they become ill.
  • If you are exposed to swine flu you may become ill 1 to 7 days after exposure.
  • The current flu shot does not protect against this strain of flu virus. A swine flu vaccine is being manufactured, but will not be ready for several months.
  • There are medications to treat swine flu but these medications are only effective when given within the first 24-28 hours of symptoms and only shorten the duration of the illness by one day. Most health authorities are currently recommending the selective treatment of people who are very ill or who have chronic illnesses. These recommendations are also changing: you may read the details on the CDC website or contact your health care provider.

Tips for parents:

  • As always, try to prevent your child (and you!) from getting sick.
    • Wash hands frequently with soap and water or use hand-sanitizing cleaners.
      • Having your child sing the ABC song during the hand washing may get them close to the recommended 15-20 seconds.
    • Cover little mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing.
    • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
    • If you are sick, try to limit your contact with others as much as possible. (I know, this is all *much* easier said than done).
  • If your child has a mild illness, it may be best to stay home, give them your usual excellent care, and closely observe them for signs of serious illness.
  • If your child is moderately ill, please contact your health care provider.
  • If your child is extremely ill, please go to the local emergency department.
  • There is gobs of good and bad information about the swine flu available on TV, the radio and on the internet. Try to get your information from a trusted source.
    • Keep yourself updated about the situation by following the updates by the CDC’s website.
    • In many states, the public health department has a website that is being updated with local information and recommendations. California’s swine flu site has local recommendations.
    • A lover of maps, I like watching this attempt at mapping the number of cases the virus races around the globe. Since I diagnosed about 12 cases (not laboratory confirmed) last Monday without telling these guys, however, I can only imagine that the real numbers are much larger.

On the Lighter Side:fashion-swine-flue-mask2

A firm believer that humor eases our stress in times of crisis, I wrote a post on my blog about my favorite moments in the virus-formerly-known-as-the-swine-flu epidemic (now pandemic). But they just keep coming. Here are several that hit my funnybone recently.

  • Thanks to Dr. Rahul Parikh for pointing me to the variety of multimedia tools that the CDC has pulled out for this one!
    • You can send your coworkers and friends an e-card to remind them to wash their hands, cover their sneezes, and keep their snotty little ones out of your kid’s school. But please “send all”– I’m pretty certain I would be offended if I received one of these directed just at me.
    • You can browse flikr to see electron micrograph pictures of the dastardly flu virus itself. There are also pictures of people getting immunizations, presumably part of a vaccine campaign: don’t miss the black and white photo of a woman getting an immunization from a device that looks like a nail gun. Now that’s going to make the kids rush in to get their flu shots!
  • Dr Parikh also highlighted the potential of this outbreak to start a whole new fashion movement. I’m heading in to work today with a sharpy and my favorite red lipstick to make sure that my N95 mask is tres chic.
  • Many of my patients ask me about the prudence of so-called “chicken pox parties” but the idea of a swine flu party is altogether batty. I agree with US officials who call it a “bad idea.” Though most people who get swine flu have only a mild or moderate illness, young healthy people–both children and adults–have developed very severe illness and even died. I would try to make a joke about swine flu parties about I cannot touch the British humor of Bryony Gordon.

Are you finding some humor amidst the chaos and tragedy of this pandemic? If so, please share. We can all use a laugh in these trying times.



About the Author

Dr. Kim is a pediatrician and blogger in San Francisco. She writes about child health, parenting, and doctoring children at www.drkimmd.com. She believes that the joys of parenting should outweigh the worries. Dr Kim is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


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