Questions and Answers About Swine Flu

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Andrew Pekosz, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, answers questions about swine flu.

-- Shankar Vedantam

It looks as though swine flu has arrived in the Baltimore-Washington area. If I live in an area where swine flu has been spotted, should I send my kids to school? Should I go to work?

The most important thing is to keep up-to-date with your local health authorities and follow their guidance. If there are suspected cases of swine influenza A/H1N1 in your locality, limit your contact with people and your exposure to crowds or places with lots of pedestrian traffic. If you are sick or even just starting to feel sick, consult your physician and stay home. An individual can transmit influenza to others before he or she has symptoms, so fight the urge to make one last run to the supermarket because you aren't feeling that bad.

If I have a cold or fever, is it better to go to the doctor or to avoid the doctor -- because people who might have swine flu could be there, and I could pick up their infection at the doctor's office?

Call your physician's office and consult with them about how to proceed. You may be asked to enter the office through a separate entrance or perhaps be given a mask when you enter. The best thing to do is call ahead, tell them your symptoms if you have been to an area where swine A/H1N1 was known to occur, and follow their instructions. It is very important to report to a health-care provider if you have flu symptoms, because this information is vital to tracking suspected and confirmed cases.

How will we know if the outbreak is dying out or expanding? What are the signals that could tell us this outbreak will be limited in scope or deadly?

We have to wait and see how the outbreak runs its course. Right now, the virus appears to be spreading and the number of cases is steadily increasing. Public health officials are monitoring cases carefully and are providing local updates.

For Maryland, the Web site is http://www.governor.maryland.


For Virginia, the Web site is

For Washington, the Web site is


What are the most interesting scientific questions that the swine flu outbreak have triggered in your mind?

The most interesting question to me is how this virus acquired the ability to infect and spread in humans. This is not a trait that is easy to acquire, and it is critical for the emergence of a pandemic. Of course, scientific questions are only of secondary importance right now.

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