Mason Epidemiologist Discusses Swine Flu and What to Do About It

Posted: April 27, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Marjorie Musick

It’s nearly May and the flu season is typically winding down in the United States. However, the recent outbreak of swine flu in several parts of the country has turned that schedule upside down.

But what hasn’t changed is the precaution that should be employed to prevent or manage the flu.

According to Kathryn Jacobsen, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Global and Community Health, “At present there is too little information for any epidemiologist to make any bold statements about the flu outbreak. All we can do is offer the standard recommendations to wash hands frequently, stay home when sick, practice general wellness, and visit your doctor to be tested if you have a high fever and suspect influenza.”

Jacobsen cautions that although the disease has been confirmed in several states, there have not been any confirmed deaths in the United States.

“Right now, there is no need to panic. The numbers of confirmed cases will most likely go up — not necessarily because the outbreak is getting worse but because laboratories now know what they’re looking for when clinics and hospitals send them samples,” says Jacobsen.

Jacobsen notes that the disease appears to have originated in Mexico because that is where the first cases were spotted, but the source will not be confirmed until public health officials complete a thorough investigation by tracking all known cases.

“Modern travel means that within a couple of days you can export a disease from anywhere in the world to any other part of the world. There was a similar situation in 2003 when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) started in Asia and ended up spreading to more than 30 countries. Canadian travelers to Asia brought the disease home with them and sparked an outbreak in Toronto.”

Usually, vaccination is the first line of defense. But at this time, there is no swine-flu specific vaccine, although the government is taking steps to develop one in the next few months. However, the usual precautions for cold and flu should be taken to guard against this new strain of flu. And if you think you have the flu, a doctor can prescribe an antiviral drug like Tamiflu or Relenza, which will help prevent severe disease.

“The only new advice from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is to go to the doctor if you suspect that you have the flu. If you have flu and don’t get tested then the health department won’t know you have it and won’t be able to track the spread of the disease. The main source of data about flu is laboratory reports. The most important symptom of swine flu is a high fever. If you have a high fever and the accompanying aches and pains of flu-like illness, then get checked.”

Wash Your Hands

“The absolute best way to prevent colds and flu is to wash your hands often,” says Jacobsen. “Wash for at least 15 seconds with warm water, with a bit of scrubbing under the fingernails and up to the wrist. Use the mechanical action of your hands rubbing together to knock the germs off your hands.”

Jacobsen notes that it’s best to use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door so that new germs do not come into contact with your clean hands. She cautions people to be especially vigilant about cleansing after using shared equipment.

“The surfaces of keyboards in public areas are disgusting,” says Jacobsen. “Some types of infectious agents can live on surfaces for minutes or even hours, which is why it’s so important to always wash your hands frequently, especially after using shared computers or phones.”

Avoid People Who Are Sick

Unfortunately for students and staff who are living and working in close quarters, it can be difficult to avoid sharing a space with those who are ill. The best defense may be a strong offense. If someone in your workplace or residence hall is sick, make sure that you do not get too close to them.

“The flu and other cold viruses are spread through large droplets which you can get exposed to when someone coughs or sneezes from as close as three feet away,” notes Patrice Levinson, nurse practitioner at Mason’s Student Health Services. ”So it’s important for people to cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. And when you’re not feeling well, it’s a good idea to stay home.”

Practice General Wellness

“General wellness helps to keep the immune system functioning,” says Jacobsen. “Things like maintaining regular exercise, eating well, and getting 15 minutes of sunlight each day make us happier and healthier. Also, seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended for most adults.”

Eating a nutritious diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and taking steps to minimize stress can also be helpful tools in strengthening the body’s natural defenses.

“Any kind of coping strategies people can use to reduce their stress are a great idea. Sometimes the best way is to take a moment to center yourself, breathe deeply and try to be sensitive to the areas of your body that might be stressed,” says Levinson. “I do recommend that everybody try to get regular daily exercise because that’s a fantastic stress reducer. It also increases the circulating endorphins in your system and sharpens your immune response.”

What to Do If You Get Sick

What should you do if, after following all of the steps above, you still catch the flu?

“With the flu, you wake up all of a sudden and you feel like a truck hit you. You have a fever, sore throat, chills, sweats, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches and you’re very tired,” says Levinson. “We recommend that patients see their health care provider or health services right away if they believe that they have the flu.”

Levinson notes that dehydration is a major concern for flu patients, so affected individuals should drink two to three liters of fluids a day. Clear liquids, like broth, apple juice and Gatorade, will keep you hydrated while not upsetting your stomach.

Also, know when to seek emergency care.

“If you have difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion or severe or persistent vomiting, you need to seek emergency care,” says Levinson. “If you take your temperature and it’s over 100 degrees, then that means it is definitely time to see your doctor.”

During the semester, Student Health Services is open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays; and noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays. For more information, visit

Up-to-the-minute pandemic flu information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is available online at CDC also has information on its web site.

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