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County Officials On Alert for Swine Flu, But Doctors Urge Common Sense Response

U.S. cases linked to outbreak in Mexico are considered little different from regular flu

Forty cases of swine flu have been identified in the United States — 11 of them in California as of Monday afternoon. Although none have been linked to Santa Barbara County, that’s not keeping local health officials from spreading the word about the virus’ effects and symptoms.

According to Dr. David Fisk, who specializes in infectious diseases at Sansum Clinic, swine flu hasn’t shown itself to be much different from the kind of flu we see during the winter season.

“There’s nothing different about swine flu symptoms that we know so far as compared to regular flu symptoms,” he said, adding that sufferers of swine flu would be experiencing fever, sore throats, coughs and muscle aches. South Coast residents suffering from the flu these days likely still have remnants from the last flu season, he said.

This latest variation, Fisk said, is a combination of two separate flu strains. Because there are human viruses and other viruses that occur primarily in birds and swine, DNA from the different viruses can mix, usually in the body of a pig, which produces a unique virus to which humans have no immunity.

“What happened is that different components of two different flu viruses combined to make a third virus,” he said.

“There’s no vaccine available for this virus because we didn’t know about this virus,” he said, although there are antiviral medications that may help combat the latest variation.

It’s still too early to tell exactly how serious this new strain of flu may be, said Fisk. The virus has been spreading rapidly throughout Mexico, the United States and Europe, but officials are not yet clear on why people in Mexico who have contracted the virus are worse off than their American or European counterparts.

“We don’t know why the virus is more severe in Mexico than anywhere else,” said Fisk, pointing out that the virus found in the United States is identical to the one in Mexico.

Other kinds of information that will come over time include newer symptoms, what populations are more susceptible, where it is spreading, and how it affects people with other health conditions, like diabetes or immunosuppression. So far, Fisk said, it’s acting like any typical flu virus.

While public health officials dig for clues and cures, the best thing people can do is to use common sense, said Fisk. Regular hand washing helps, and covering one’s mouth while coughing. Those who suspect they might have swine flu are urged not to go out in public, and if they must, then wear a mask. Those who may be experiencing respiratory problems in connection with the disease are urged to see a physician. However, it’s likely, said Fisk, that many swine flu sufferers will be able to ride out the illness like it was just another flu.

“Not everyone who gets this needs to go to the doctor,” he said. Nevertheless, he said the medical community is watching the issue closely.

The county has established “sentinel positions,” people who have worked in hospitals with the Public Health Department and are keeping an eye out for the illness, Dr. Elliot Schulman, the department’s director, told a Monday news conference at the Board of Supervisors hearing room.

“We are actively looking for any patient that might meet the case definition,” he said. While on the alert for local cases, Schulman is also hearing from state and federal agencies often.

“We are in pretty much constant contact with the state Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention),” he said.

Frank Alvarez, deputy health officer, said that five years ago the county created a core of physicians who have signed up to work if there were an epidemic and needed to give mass vaccines or separate the sick from the well. That effort is made up of about 20-25 doctors, including pediatricians, family practitioners and disease specialists.

“It’s a fairly robust system,” he said. “It gives us and our providers a heads-up of what we’re seeing in our community.”

The initial cases of swine flu were discovered in San Diego by a similar system, he said.

Alvarez said most of the cases in the United States have already been treated with flu drugs and have responded well.

“It’s looking again that this particular strain is susceptible to the Tamiflu and Relenza that we have in national stockpiles, so that’s encouraging,” he said.

All of the U.S. cases linked to the outbreak are relatively mild, said Schulman.

The Public Health Department has established a swine flu public information line at 888.722.6358 for both English and Spanish. Click here for more information.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and staff writer Sonia Fernandez at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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