Swine flu virus and how to avoid it

Dr Miles Varn describes steps to protect yourself and your family from swine flu virus when travelling

By Dr MIles Varn on 16 October 2009 in Travel Articles

Even while enjoying paradise or exploring the wonders of the world, life happens. You could break your leg skiing in Vail, develop chest pains while hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, or realize you forgot your medications upon your arrival to China. When you travel, PinnacleCare Private Health Advisory can help you plan for sickness, lost or forgotten medications, or pandemic outbreaks.

While the world braces for the next potential wave of illness caused by the novel H1N1 (swine flu) virus, it's important to remember to take steps to protect yourself and your family from illness, especially if you have a chronic health condition. With the right knowledge, preparation, and protection there is no need to cancel vacations or delay business.

Preparing for the H1N1 Virus

At the start of the summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new flu strain, novel H1N1 or swine flu, to be a global pandemic. That declaration was based on the widespread nature of the disease, not its severity. To date, approximately 140 countries have reported cases of this strain of influenza and, according to WHO statistics dated August 6, 2009, the H1N1 virus has caused 1,462 deaths worldwide. As a comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  estimates that approximately 36,000 people die annually from complications of the "seasonal flu".

All of the prevention tips listed at the end of this report for the seasonal flu can also help lessen the risk of this new strain, although the vaccine for seasonal flu does not protect against novel H1N1. The H1N1 Vaccine will be available in the coming weeks. As with seasonal flu, people with this virus may be contagious from a day before falling ill to five to seven days after symptoms appear.

As vaccine production ramps up, the CDC  announced that vaccination priority should be given to pregnant women, people who live with or care for children under 6 months old, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old (because unlike seasonal flu, novel H1N1 seems to cause more serious illness in young people), and people ages 25 through 64 who are at higher risk because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

Illness with the novel H1N1 flu can range from mild to severe. While most people have recovered without medical treatment, there have been hospitalizations and deaths caused by the disease. Most of those who died had health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, kidney disease, suppressed immune system, neurocognitive and neuromuscular disease, and pregnancy, that placed them at higher risk.

One difference between this virus and seasonal flu is that, to date, people over the age of 64 do not appear to be at increased risk, perhaps due to the fact that many of them have antibodies to the virus. People younger than 25, however, have been more seriously affected by the H1N1 strain. In general, however, people believed to be at higher risk from this virus are the same as those at increased risk from seasonal flu.

Treatment for the novel H1N1 flu may involve the anti-viral drugs oseltamivir or zanamivir, though health officials have stated those recommendations may change as more data on the effectiveness of these drugs on the virus is gathered. Physicians have been advised to use careful clinical judgment when prescribing these medications for people who are not at increased risk from the flu because the benefits of the drugs may be modest for most people. People at higher risk and groups most likely to be exposed to the virus such as health care workers, may be given these drugs as a preventative measure.

Fast Facts About Influenza

While it's the novel H1N1 influenza virus, also known as swine flu, that has been getting the bulk of the attention from policymakers, health officials and the media, it's important not to lose sight of the importance of protecting yourself and your family from seasonal influenza, especially if members of your family are living with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart or kidney disease or immune system problems.

Taking preventive measures including receiving a flu shot and practicing good hygiene are simple steps we can all take to help prevent the spread of the flu These steps are proven measures for reducing the risk of seasonal flu and health officials also recommend many of these easy, common sense practices as potentials tool for slowing the spread of the novel H1N1 influenza which experts predict may become more prevalent in the fall.

The symptoms of influenza can include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Dry cough
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea and vomiting (more common in children than adults)

What makes diagnosing the flu more difficult is that many other common infections share some of these symptoms. A definitive diagnosis of influenza can be made through lab tests performed during the first two to three days of the illness.

The Role of the Private Health Advisor

One other thought to bear in mind is that many countries have begun screening travelers for the novel H1N1 virus. If the screening staff believes you may have been exposed to the virus or you have flu-like symptoms, you may be isolated and required to undergo a rapid flu test and medical exam. If you test positive for the virus, you may be hospitalized and/or quarantined.

Extensive international travel can present challenges beyond the knowledge and resources of the most experienced traveler. But as a PinnacleCare member, there need be little concern.

PinnacleCare will research each leg of your itinerary and make certain you are forearmed for any medical emergency.  As a member, you are provided comprehensive international medical insurance,emergency medical evacuation emergency medical support, and detailed travel reports.

PinnacleCare will identify appropriate CDC-recommended vaccinations in advance of travel. We will identify top hospital and physician resources for your specific medical needs.  We will ensure that the physicians profiled in the report are aware of your travel dates and that they are available to see you should a need arise. Finally we will identify pharmacies for medications, embassy locations and healthcare risks in each location.

In the event of crisis or emergency, with one call, PinnacleCare will manage and oversee the situation from beginning to end.. And when needed can transmit all your organized essential health records to the treating physician or hospital. If necessary, translators and emergency airlift evacuation will be arranged.

PinnacleCare Advisors backed by emergency physicians are available 24/7 to address questions or needs.  Traveling members receive complete support and service, regardless of location or time of day. This level of protection of the health and safety of loved ones is no longer beyond reach. PinnacleCare is a passport to guardianship that has no boundaries.

Prevention is the Foundation of your Flu-Fighting Strategy

The most basic form of prevention is to get vaccinated against seasonal influenza. In fact, studies cited by the World Health Organization found that for healthy adults, vaccination can prevent 70 to 90 percent of influenza-specific illness. For the elderly, vaccination reduces the severity of illness and the occurrence of complications by up to 60 percent and deaths by 80 percent. There are some groups of people for whom vaccination is not appropriate, so consult your physician about your specific health situation before you make a decision about getting vaccinated.

In addition to getting an annual flu vaccine, there are a range of steps you can take while traveling the world to guard yourself from the disease.

  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is the frontline defense. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective for killing the virus on hands.
  • Take adequate time to wash your hands. To ensure you're washing your hands long enough, experts say the process should last about 15 seconds or as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" or a chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
  • Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hands but rather into a tissue which you immediately throw away
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth which are the common entry points for the virus
  • Limit contact with others who are sick
  • Stay home from work, school and other public places if you become ill (you can be contagious a day before symptoms appear and for three to seven days after you become sick)
  • Practice immune-boosting healthy habits including good nutrition, regular exercise, drinking enough fluids and getting adequate sleep

Some people at higher risk for complications may also be prescribed anti-viral medication proactively to protect against the flu. Anti-viral medications do not cure you, but may limit the severity and duration of your illness.

For most people, treatment for the flu includes bed rest, lots of fluids, and symptom relief with over-the-counter medications to reduce fever, decongest nasal passages and control coughs when appropriate. In some cases, your physician may prescribe an anti-viral medication, but to be effective, you must start taking these drugs within two days of the appearance of your first symptoms.

As with many contagious diseases, the best prevention is often the simplest. Practice good hygiene and, when appropriate, and employ social distancing techniques such as not shaking hands and avoiding crowds.

by Dr. Miles Varn, PinancleCare Chief Medical Officer

For more information, please visit www.pinnaclecare.com. And, be sure to follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pinnaclecare.

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