ATLANTA – Since it first emerged in April, the global swine flu epidemic has sickened more than 1 million Americans and killed about 500. It’s also spread around the world, infecting tens of thousands and killing nearly 2,000.
This summer, the virus has been surprisingly tenacious in the U.S., refusing to fade away as flu viruses usually do. And health officials predict a surge of cases this fall, perhaps very soon as schools reopen.
So how worried should you be and how do you prepare? The Associated Press has tried to boil down the mass of information into 10 things you should know to be flu-savvy.
1. No cause for panic.
So far, swine flu isn’t much more threatening than regular seasonal flu.
During the few months of this new flu’s existence, hospitalizations and deaths from it seem to be lower than the average seen for seasonal flu, and the virus hasn’t dramatically mutated. That’s what health officials have observed in the Southern Hemisphere where flu season is now winding down.
Still, more people are susceptible to swine flu and U.S. health officials are worried because it hung in so firmly here during the summer — a time of year the flu usually goes away.
2. Virus tougher on some.
Swine flu is more of a threat to certain groups — children under 2, pregnant women, people with health problems like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Teens and young adults are also more vulnerable to swine flu.
Ordinary, seasonal flu hits older people the hardest, but not swine flu. Scientists think older people may have some immunity from exposure years earlier to viruses similar to swine flu.
3. Wash your hands often and long.
Like seasonal flu, swine flu spreads through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick. Emphasize to children that they should wash with soap and water long enough to finish singing the alphabet song, “Now I know my ABC’s…” Also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
4. Get the kids vaccinated.
These groups should be first in line for swine flu shots, especially if vaccine supplies are limited — people 6 months to 24 years old, pregnant women, health care workers.
Also a priority: Parents and caregivers of infants, people with those high-risk medical conditions previously noted.
5. Get your shots early.
Millions of swine flu shots should be available by October. If you are in one of the priority groups, try to get your shot as early as possible.
Check with your doctor or local or state health department about where to do this. Many children should be able to get vaccinated at school. Permission forms will be sent home in advance.