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Don't Panic Over Swine Flu

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

An infectious disease expert at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine advises the public to take basic precautions around a swine flu outbreak but not to panic or flood emergency rooms with mild symptoms.

"The story in Mexico sounds very different than the story here so far," said John Flaherty, M.D., associate chief of infectious diseases and professor of medicine at the Feinberg School, and a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "We are in the early phase of something that may turn out to be a false alarm or may turn out to be bad. All we can do is monitor things. We don't know yet if the strains of H1N1 we are seeing here are the same ones in Mexico."

"The cases in the U.S. have been mild and self-limited so far," Flaherty said.

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Flaherty said people who are sick with mild symptoms of a fever, headache and body aches should stay home, wear masks and sneeze or cough into tissues, then wash their hands. He advised the public to keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth and "wash your hands a lot."

Flaherty advised against going to emergency rooms for mild flu symptoms. "We don't want people running to the ER or doctors office with mild respiratory symptoms and asking for influenza tests. We want these to be available where the disease is identified and not start someone on Tamiflu or Relenza and get a lot of expensive tests that may not be necessary."

"If we start seeing cases of swine flu in Chicago and if those cases, in particular, are severe, that would be a trigger that we should be more aggressive about our testing and early treatment," Flaherty said.

The good news, Flaherty said, is the strains that have been identified so fare are susceptible to the antiviral medications Tamiflu and Relenza.

"We haven't had an influenza pandemic in a long time," Flaherty noted. "This requires careful monitoring. There is always potential for a new strain to emerge that could cause severe disease."