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Health officials across North America say they're on alert after the outbreak of the swine flu. It's a new strain of flu in humans. Up until now it had only been seen in pigs.
More than 100 deaths in Mexico are linked to the swine flu. While there have been no deaths in the United States, there are suspected cases in five states: New York, California, Kansas, Texas and Ohio.
So far there are no confirmed cases in Massachusetts or New England.
WBUR spoke to Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach about what the state is doing about the outbreak.
What steps is Massachusetts taking to increase surveillance for possible cases of swine flu?
JOHN AUERBACH: We are working closely with clinicians and hospitals and other locations to try to identify patients who may have influenza-like illness and have traveled to some of the outbreak areas.
And we want to encourage the clinicians — particularly when they see people who have serious symptoms of influenza-like illness — to notify us and to test the patients so that we can determine the strain of virus that they have.
State health officials have said that anyone who feels flu-like symptoms should stay home from work or school.
AUERBACH: That's right. In terms of controlling the spread of the illness, it's good for people that are sick to remain home — not go to work or to go to school.
We encourage people who have mild flu-like symptoms-- they can notify their doctor, but we don't encourage them to go to an emergency room or go to see their doctor — they should just consult with their physicians.
But people who have serious symptoms obviously should seek care and be in consultation with their physicians.
What's the threshold? What symptoms should people be looking for as they decide whether or not to stay home?
AUERBACH: Well, the symptoms that are associated with swine flu are the same type of symptoms that people get in seasonal flu. And that includes such things as fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache. But again, if people have relatively mild symptoms, they should primarily stay at home until those symptoms subside.
However, if people have high fever or if they have difficulty breathing or more serious symptoms, those certainly are more important that they seek medical care quickly.
What are the challenges that are unique to facing this particular new strain of flu?
AUERBACH: Well, part of the challenge is that we're still learning some of the specifics about this strain of flu. We are learning each day a little but more about both how transmittable it is and what the symptoms are that are associated with it.
Part of the learning process is understanding why the cases within the United States to date have been relatively mild, while there are more serious cases in Mexico.
There are cases in Mexico and the U.S., but also Canada, France, Israel, Brazil, New Zealand. How big is the risk of a major global outbreak of this flu?
AUERBACH: It certainly seems highly likely that there will continue to be cases found in the United States and in other parts of the world.
What we are tracking carefully is whether people continue to experience some of the mild symptoms that the U.S. cases have experienced so far, or whether the illness appears to be of a more serious type. And so, that is a key question.
We also are encouraging people around the world to have as much information as possible about how to protect themselves, because there are clear steps that can be done for people to reduce their risk of either being exposed to the flu or transmitting it.
This program aired on April 27, 2009.
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