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Posted: May 1, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Swine flu reported in LaGrange

Symptoms similar to normal flu virus, public urged not to panic

By Amber Pittman/

Georgia had its first confirmed swine flu case on Thursday when a 30-year-old Kentucky woman, who had been vacationing in Mexico and attended a wedding in LaGrange, fell ill and was hospitalized. The Georgia Center for Disease Control lab was still awaiting test results Thursday afternoon from 24 other cases that could be swine flu. The virus has been steadily spreading across the United States, with 131 confirmed cases in 17 states.

So far, the only death remains the 23-month old Mexican child in Texas and state and national officials have advised the public not to panic. The public is being advised to use proper hygiene and to use the same precautions they would use during normal flu season. Health officials have said that avoiding crowded public areas is advisable. Around 300 schools closed and numerous sporting events were cancelled across the United States Thursday.

According to the CDC, the swine flu virus is thought to be spread in the same way that the human seasonal flu spreads: the coughing or sneezing of infected people and the touching of something with flu viruses on it followed by touching the mouth or nose.

The East Metro Health District, the health body that oversees Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties, said the symptoms of people infected with swine flu are similar to normal flu indicators: fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.

The EMHD said people can help protect themselves from the virus by: avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home from work or school if you are sick, washing your hands with soap and water, covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze and avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth. People who believe they have the swine flu are advised to contact their doctor.

All agencies have said that there is no evidence to suggest that swine flu can be transmitted through food, so eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.

According to the Center for Disease Control's Web site the swine influenza, or the H1N1 virus, is simply a respiratory disease that affects infected pigs. Normally, the disease is not transmitted to humans but when it is, humans are likely to become sick because they have little or no natural immunity to the swine form of the flu virus. Similarly, human flu vaccines do not prevent swine flu virus. The current virus is different from previous swine flu cases, because swine, human and bird genes have all been found in the current virus.

The World Health Organization announced a pandemic is imminent by raising the pandemic alert level to Phase 5, the level just below pandemic. The WHO describes an influenza pandemic as a new influenza virus against which the human population has no natural immunity, resulting in epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness. However, the number of cases of illnesses and deaths is difficult to predict and depends on several factors, according to WHO.

WHO is benefiting from its pandemic preparedness plan which was updated in 2005 and was improved after the experiences of SARS and the bird flu. The plan is specifically designed to aid WHO in controlling with situations like the swine flu.

Phase 5 on WHO's pandemic scale is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus, as opposed to animal-to-human, into at least two countries in one WHO-defined region of the world. Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is declared when community level outbreaks occur in at least one other country in a different WHO region. So far major outbreaks have been limited to North America, with a handful of confirmed cases in several European countries.

In WHO Director-General Margaret Chan's speech Wednesday, she essentially said all governments, health agencies and pharmaceutical companies need to increase efforts to detect and treat cases, control the virus' spread and produce antiviral drugs.

The CDC released one-quarter of its antiviral drugs and other materials needed to respond to the outbreak. Two prescription antiviral drugs are effective against the virus, oseltamivir and zanamivir, which go by the respective brand names of Tamiflu and Relenza. EMHD Public Information Officer Vernon Goins said Tamiflu is usually taken in pill form while Relenza is usually inhaled. Because of this Tamiflu is generally more readily available.

Goins said it is important to understand that these drugs are not vaccines that prevent the flu, rather they are taken after someone has the flu in order to mitigate the virus' reproduction in the body. According to the CDC taking the drugs will make your illness milder and may prevent serious flu complications. However, these antiviral drugs work best if taken within two days of the first sign of symptoms. The drugs are usually taken once a day for 10 days, because the virus is the most severe for the first seven days after onset.

According to the EMHD, vaccines normally takes at least four to six months to produce from the onset of a pandemic, which means a vaccine would not likely be ready until early September.

The public can track the spread of the swine flu at several sites including cdc.gov/swineflu, cdc.gov/swineflu/whatsnew.htm, eastmetrohealth.com/Emer_Prep/Alert.html and netvibes.com/btc#Flu.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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