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Time to be smart, not to panic

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By Ralph Damiani

There is a lot of hysteria going on right now about the swine flu. The simple truth is that all you need to do is be smart.

Here are the five things you need to do to keep yourself safe.

• It seems obvious, but it’s very important to actually make sure you wash your hands.

• That you cover your mouth with a tissue or handkerchief when you cough. 

• That you use a prescribed medication within 24 hours of contracting swine flu. If you are in the healthcare field and treating others who may have swine flu, you may take it as a preventative medicine.

• You need to track your symptoms.

• Most importantly, call your doctor as soon as a high fever hits.

In other words, be smart.

The state Department of Health is also urging New Mexicans to wash their hands, practice good hygiene and don’t go to work or school if they feel sick, as two more probable cases are reported, bringing the total probable cases in the state to four.

Right now, those are all the precautions residents need against swine flu, Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil told the Associated Press.

The two new probable cases reported last week were from a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy from Socorro County. None of New Mexico’s four probable cases have been confirmed.

State officials also were awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about whether a Valencia County teenager, a Santa Fe County 1-year-old and the two Socorro County teens have swine flu. Results for the Valencia and Santa Fe county cases are expected soon.

Still, the Health Department has been inundated with calls from anxious New Mexicans asking about masks or gloves, or whether they should stay home from work and keep their children home from school, Vigil said.

That’s too drastic for the current situation, he said.

New Mexicans don’t need gloves or masks now, and in a worse-case scenario, they could make people think they have more protection than they do, he said.

But concern is high enough that Doña Ana County government officials felt compelled to send a news release Thursday saying the death of a 6-year-old Las Cruces boy was not due to swine flu – and never even had flu-like symptoms.

Vigil urges people to pay attention to the latest advice from health officials – and have faith in it.

State health officials and doctors briefed school superintendents  and afterward, state Education Secretary Veronica C. Garcia said it’s not necessary to close schools now. Any future closures would be handled case by case.

Los Alamos Schools sent home letters this week telling parents that it was not necessary to close schools and that they were watching events.

Smart.

The AP reports that New Mexico has been planning for a potential pandemic flu outbreak for years, so the state is ready.

There’s no vaccine for this never-before-seen swine flu variant, but anti-viral medications can help. Vigil said New Mexico has enough of them for anything foreseeable.

But he said there’s no situation in which everyone would get pills.

Antivirals don’t work except early in the disease’s progress and don’t prevent flu except while they’re being taken, he said. In other words, if a high-risk person is exposed after stopping the drug, he could catch flu.

The Health Department plans to focus on treating sick individuals if cases are confirmed, agency spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer said.

Vigil said antiviral medications also will be given to high-risk individuals – such as the very old or young and someone with a chronic illness – who came into contact with the Valencia County teenager and Santa Fe County infant.

Busemeyer told the AP the teen was home-schooled, and health officials have not found any contact with public schools. The 1-year-old hasn’t been in day care for nine days, and health officials don’t believe anyone was exposed because any illness would have been expected by now, she said.

New Mexico has 70,000 doses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza and expects 280,000 more doses from the CDC. The first shipment is expected this week. Busemeyer said the private health care sector also has a significant supply of  the drugs.

New Mexico also won’t have to rely on the CDC for testing for swine flu soon. The acting director of the CDC said Thursday states will be sent kits to do their own tests.

New Mexico’s testing lab hasn’t had the ability to confirm swine flu and when it could not rule out swine flu in a particular nasal swab sample, it sent the sample to the CDC.

The state usually sees about 10 flu samples a day this time of year, Busemeyer said. Currently, it’s testing 60 samples.

Vigil points out substantial deaths and hospitalizations occur even in any flu epidemic and normal winter flu seasons. New Mexico sees between 200 and 300 deaths from flu and its complications every flu season.

If you have questions, see your doctor or call the state’s toll-free flu hot-line at (866)850-5893.

Regardless, please be smart.