Making people aware of flu health risks will be helpful in dealing with the newly identified H1N1 influenza, also known as swine flu, said two experts during a Friday community forum sponsored by the Columbia Basin Badger Club.
"It's a mild to moderate pandemic," said Dr. Sandy Rock, who works as a risk communicator for AdvanceMed Hanford.
H1N1 hasn't caused severe illness, but it can affect the lower respiratory systems of those who get the virus, Rock said.
Children and young adults seem to be particularly vulnerable to the new virus compared to senior citizens, he said. That's making parents with school-age kids especially worried, he said.
"They need to act on their worries," Rock told 40 Badger Club members.
Proper hygiene and knowing what to do when a loved one comes down with influenza-like symptoms offers the best protection against H1N1 flu until the vaccine becomes available later this year, said Heather Hill, public health nurse for the Benton-Franklin Health District.
Typically, fever, coughing, head-aches, muscle aches and extreme exhaustion are symptoms of the flu, she said, adding people must learn to distinguish between the cold and flu.
But even if someone is sick with swine flu, that's no cause for panic in most cases, she said. People should make sure they don't help spread the highly contagious flu, Hill said.
She recommended washing your hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, covering a cough or sneeze and staying home if you're sick.
The H1N1 virus was first detected in the United States in April and is spreading from person to person worldwide, probably in much the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
It causes severe health problems for pregnant women and people with conditions such as asthma, chronic pulmonary disease and heart disease.
Swine flu has a low severity index right now, Hill said. "But we don't know how it'll mutate in the next few years. We have to be vigilant."
It's a good idea to get a shot for the seasonal flu as soon as possible, Rock said. It takes about two weeks for vaccine to take effect. In some cases, a booster dose is helpful when flu season peaks in January and February, he said.
Those with influenza-like symptoms also are more susceptible to secondary infections, said Rock, who's helped put together a pandemic preparedness plan for 13,000 Hanford workers.
Benton-Franklin Health District is also working to educate Tri-Citians about the flu, Hill said. In the summer, she worked with school nurses to put a plan in place to deal with potential H1N1 cases during the school year, she said.
The national media created a lot of confusion with its reporting on H1N1, said Rock and Hill. They praised local media for its coverage of the issue.
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