DON'T PANIC. Yesterday's declaration of a national emergency by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in response to the growing number of swine flu cases was a legalistic maneuver that allows local authorities access to federal aid. But Americans would do well to keep themselves informed and take common-sense precautions to limit their potential exposure to this new infectious strain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization and the governments of Mexico and Canada are working together to understand the nature of the swine influenza A/H1N1 virus and how and where it's being spread. While much remains unknown about the virus, here's what the CDC does know: This strain of swine flu is being spread from human to human. Symptoms include high fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea. Only those who are seriously ill should get medical attention right away. The drugs Tamiflu and Relenza have been effective in treating those with H1N1. Treatment is most effective if done within 48 hours of exposure. The CDC suggests frequent hand washing; covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze; avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth; and staying home from work or school if you become ill. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers such as Purell are effective. There is no need for a face mask now.
This fast-moving health scare roared to life in Mexico around April 12, when a woman died of severe viral pneumonia. So far, more than 80 people there have died, and more than 1,300 have been afflicted. As of yesterday afternoon, there were 20 confirmed "mild" cases in the United States, with eight in New York City, seven in California, two in Kansas, two in Texas and one in Ohio. The patients range in age from 7 to 54. In a call with reporters, Anne Schuchat of the CDC announced that all 20 patients have recovered.
U.S. health authorities appear to have been slow to learn what was happening in Mexico. The CDC was informed by Mexican health authorities on Thursday that the cases in California were related to those in their country. The United States is not screening travelers at airports, and the Obama administration has no plans to institute the extraordinary measures taken by Mexico, which banned large public gatherings. Because the situation varies from state to state, the CDC urges everyone to consult their local governments' Web sites for up-to-date information. Updated national information from the CDC is available at www.cdc.gov/swineflu.