THE DETAILS: On Monday health officials confirmed that the 20 new swine flu cases in this country were students from the same New York private school, where 8 others cases had been previously identified. The students had recently visited Mexico on a school trip. Also on Monday, President Barack Obama said that Sunday’s declaration of a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was a "cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert," but should not serve as a "cause for alarm." The move directs more resources towards detecting and tracking the illness, and allows the Department of Homeland Security to free up millions of doses of anti-viral drugs for treatment, if needed.
WHAT IT MEANS: While news coverage about infections and flu epidemics may be disturbing, health experts echo the President’s calls for calm. So far this is a very limited outbreak, says Mary Klotman, MD, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “We’ve dealt with influenza for a long time, and will continue to deal with it in the future,” she says. “On an individual level, I don’t think there’s reason to panic, but you should use common sense.”
Use the basic rules of flu etiquette to help protect yourself while the CDC continues to investigate the situation:
• Know when to use a sick day. If you’re not feeling well, stay home so you don’t spread a possible viral infection. Swine flu symptoms are the same as the regular flu—fever, lethargy, sore throat, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. If you experience flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor. Initial studies show that antiviral medications do work against the swine flu, says Dr. Klotman. But in most of the current U.S. cases, patients recovered without the drugs.
• Scrub-a-dub-dub those hands. A standard practice for flu prevention pertains to the swine flu, too: Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water. You may not even realize you’re doing it, but touching the so-called T-zone—your mouth, eyes, and nose—can give the virus a chance to enter your body. So avoid touching your face, but keep your hands clean in case you accidentally (perhaps inevitably) touch it anyway.
Here’s the best way to wash your hands:
1. Remember the three main components: warm water, soap, and friction.
2. Wet your hands with very warm running water. “Not hot enough to burn you, but very warm,” suggests germ expert Donna Duberg, MA, MS, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University in Missouri. “Use lots of soap so that there is a good lather.” (Note that warm water is optional; cold will work in a pinch, but warm is more comfortable and you'll be less likely to stop too soon.)
3. Add soap and rub hands vigorously for 15-20 seconds. “If hands are visibly dirty, wash them to get the dirt and grime off, rinse, and then wash with soap again to help remove any germs that are still on the skin,” Duberg says.
4. Time it out for kids. If you have little ones, get them washing to a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The ABC Song,” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Or introduce them to Henry the Hand, champion handwasher.
5. Wash all surfaces. That including the back of hands, between fingers, the tips of fingers, and under your fingernails.
6. Rinse, keeping your fingers pointed down.
7. Dry vigorously with paper or a clean cloth towel. If someone in your house already has a flu infection, it’s best to use paper towels and toss the used paper in the trash (look for a brand made from recycled material).
8. Use a towel to turn off the faucet and open the door. If you want to post a reminder by your bathroom sink, you can print out a free hand-washing poster.
• Keep surfaces clean. Viruses are generally not as hardy as bacteria, so good, routine cleaning with soap and water or disinfecting wipes should keep their numbers down, says Duberg. “If a person has the flu, consider using a 10-percent vinegar and water solution, or 10-percent bleach and water spray, especially on bathroom surfaces and faucets,” she says. “And be conscientious in wiping off door handles, door frames, faucets, and any other surfaces family members touch using the solutions, or disinfecting wipes.” We prefer the vinegar mix—it’s more environmentally friendly—but if you use bleach, only mix what you need at the time. The bleach potion loses its ability to kill germs once it’s been sitting around for a few hours.
• Mind your manners. If you sneeze or cough, do it into a tissue, and then wash your hands after you toss the tissue to prevent the spread of germs.
• As always, cook your pork. Russia and China announced they will temporarily ban the import of pork from Mexico and certain parts of the United States amid the swine flu scare, which sparks an obvious questions: Can you get swine flu from eating pork? The answer is no. On general food safety principles, thought, be sure to cook the meat thoroughly before eating it. And buy pork that’s produced organically or on small farms. Reports in the Mexican press suggest that raising pigs on overcrowded confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may have contributed to the spread of the virus.