A never-before-seen flu strain — a mix of pig, human and bird viruses — has turned killer in Mexico and is causing milder illness in the United States and elsewhere. While authorities say it's not time to panic, they are taking steps to stem the spread and urging people to pay close attention to the latest health warnings.
Here's what you need to know:
Q: How do I protect myself and my family?
A: For now, take commonsense precautions. Cover your coughs and sneezes, with a tissue that you throw away or by sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand. Wash hands frequently; if soap and water aren't available, hand gels can substitute. Stay home if you're sick and keep children home from school if they are.
Q: How easy is it to catch this virus?
A: Scientists don't yet know if it takes fairly close or prolonged contact with someone who's sick, or if it's more easily spread. But in general, flu viruses spread through uncovered coughs and sneezes or — and this is important — by touching your mouth or nose with unwashed hands. Flu viruses can live on surfaces for several hours, like a doorknob just touched by someone who sneezed into his hand.
Q: Is it treatable?
A: Yes, with the flu drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, but not with two older flu medications.
Q: Why are people dying in Mexico and not here?
A: That's a huge mystery. First, understand that no one really knows just how many people in Mexico are dying of this flu strain, or how many have it. Only a fraction of the suspected deaths have been tested and confirmed as swine flu, and some initially suspected cases were caused by something else.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: They're similar to regular human flu — a fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also have diarrhea and vomiting.
Q: How do I know if I should see a doctor?
A: Health authorities say if you live in places where swine flu cases have been confirmed, or you recently traveled to Mexico, and you have those symptoms, your doctor can decide whether you need treatment or to be tested.
Q: Did last winter's flu shot protect me?
A: Probably not. Even though it did protect against the Type A family of flu viruses that this new swine flu belongs to, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran some preliminary tests and doesn't think it offered any cross protection.
Q: Why are people calling it swine flu if it's not just from pigs? Did it really come from pigs?
A: Pigs do spread their own strains of influenza and every so often people catch one, usually after contact with the animals. This new virus is a mix of human, pig and bird viruses but the name, for ease, was shortened to swine flu — and unlike typical swine flu, it is spreading person-to-person.
A: Yes. Swine influenza viruses don't spread through food.