Flathead area public health officials are preparing for a local outbreak of swine flu – something they say seems increasingly likely. But there’s no need for alarm: Area residents are encouraged to stay calm and take common-sense precautions to protect their health.
“I’m not a fatalist, but I realize the likelihood is really strong that we will have swine flu in Flathead County,” Joe Russell, public health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department, said, noting that the tourism season is just beginning and seasonal residents are returning to the area.
Russell was updating area emergency officials at the annual meeting of the Flathead’s Local Emergency Planning Committee.
The health department, Russell said, is meeting twice daily for updates on the flu outbreak, taking part in cooperative planning with area hospitals and preparing school districts for possible shutdowns if one student or staff member there gets swine flu.
“We’re laying the groundwork if anything does come here,” Russell said.
No cases of the H1N1 strain of influenza A, or the so-called swine flu, had been detected in Montana as of Monday, May 4.
The state Department of Public Health and Human Services tested more than 100 samples from Montanans with flu-like symptoms last week, with none showing positive for the H1N1 flu virus. Health officials planned to continue conducting tests on specimens from across the state, in hopes of identifying a case early if it occurs.
On Monday, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 226 confirmed cases from 30 states. The only swine flu death in the United States has been a Mexican boy who was visiting Texas.
In Mexico, where the strain first appeared, 727 cases of H1N1 have been confirmed, as well as 26 deaths. With signs that the spread of cases was easing, the government there was expected to allow most businesses to reopen Wednesday, after a five-day national shutdown of offices, restaurants, schools and even the stands of soccer stadiums.
Worldwide, at least 21 countries have confirmed cases of swine flu for a combined total of 1,192.
Montana’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steve Helgerson, reminded Montanans last week, however, that the swine flu is just that – the flu.
“Although the headlines tend to emphasize the term ‘swine’ influenza, the really important part of these two words is ‘influenza,’ ” Helgerson said in a conference call with reporters.
While the H1N1 strain is new, there’s no proof that’s it’s even as dangerous as the seasonal flu, which kills some 36,000 Americans annually. As a result, people are encouraged to be cautious, but not panicked.
The symptoms of this new influenza A H1N1 virus in people are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. A significant number of people who have been infected with this virus also have reported diarrhea and vomiting.
While officials urged citizens to stay calm, they did suggest that they take common-sense precautions, such as these “What you can do to stay healthy” tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
• Try to avoid close contact with sick people. Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.
• If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
More information is available at the CDC Web site, www.cdc.gov/swineflu/. The state has also created a Web site to inform citizens at http://www.dphhs.mt.gov//, and local, up-to-date information is available at the Flathead City-County Health Department’s Web site http://flatheadhealth.org/.
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