Worried about swine flu? Wash your hands

Sat Apr 25, 2009 12:00pm BST

Quotes

   

(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click on [nFLU])

* Virus is carried on hands

* Simple hygiene measures are highly effective

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON, April 25 (Reuters) - Worried about swine flu? There is one easy way to protect against infection, health experts agree -- handwashing.

Global health officials are worried about an unusual new strain of flu that may have killed as many as 68 people in Mexico, with 1,000 showing possible symptoms. It has infected at least eight people in the United States. [ID:nN24462379]

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health said they expected to find more cases in the coming days and weeks.

Little can be done to prevent an outbreak of flu from spreading, health experts caution, but they say common sense measures can help individuals protect themselves.

Number one is hand-washing, they say -- a surprisingly effective way to prevent all sorts of diseases, including ordinary influenza and the new and mysterious swine flu virus.

"Cover your cough or your sneeze, wash your hands frequently," advised Dr. Richard Besser, acting CDC director.

Influenza can spread in coughs or sneezes, but an increasing body of evidence shows little particles of virus can linger on tabletops, telephones and other surfaces and be transferred via the fingers to the mouth, nose or eyes.

Alcohol-based gel or foam hand sanitizers work well to destroy viruses and bacteria.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms such as a sudden fever, cough or muscle aches should stay away from work or public transportation and should see a doctor to be tested.

STAYING HOME

"If you have the flu, then you shouldn't be getting on the bus or getting on the plane and traveling," Besser told reporters in a telephone briefing.

"Social distancing" is another tactic. It means staying away from other people who might be infected and can include avoiding large gatherings, spreading out a little at work, or perhaps staying home and lying low if an infection is spreading in a community.

Flu experts have also long advised against trying to stockpile personal supplies of antivirals.

Tamiflu and Relenza are two drugs shown to work against the current strains of seasonal influenza. Tamiflu or oseltamivir, invented by Gilead Sciences Inc (GILD.O) and marketed by Roche AG (ROG.VX), is a pill while GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L) (GSK.N) Relenza, known generically as zanamivir, is inhaled.

Both drugs treat a flu infection, making it less serious and perhaps making the illness last fewer days. But they must be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms to do any good.

They can also prevent infection with garden-variety flu if taken, for example, by a family member caring for a sick relative. No one knows if they will do the same with the new swine flu.

And the average person is not going to know when, precisely, to begin taking the drug. Many infections look like flu, says pediatrician and immunologist Dr. Anne Moscona of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Viruses and bacteria alike can evolve resistance to drugs they encounter frequently. "If you have Tamiflu at home and you take it for a cold or give it for a respiratory virus that is not influenza, we will be unable to use these drugs when we encounter a lethal strain of flu," Moscona says. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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