Health Department: Wash your hands

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The state Department of Health is telling New Mexicans to wash their hands, practice good hygiene and don’t go to work or school if they feel sick.

Right now, those are all the precautions they need against swine flu, Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil said Thursday.
As of Thursday afternoon, New Mexico had no confirmed cases of swine flu. State officials were awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about whether a Valencia County 1-year-old and a Santa Fe County teenager have swine flu. Results are expected Friday.

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 Dona 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.

“Just because a case is confirmed over here, doesn’t mean over there on the other side of town or other side of the state you shouldn’t go to school or to work,” he said.

State health officials and doctors briefed school superintendents Thursday, 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, she said.

New Mexico has been planning for a potential pandemic flu outbreak for years, so the state is ready, health officials said.

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 infant and Santa Fe County teenager.

Busemeyer said 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 for flu. If they’re found to be flu, they’ll be tested for swine flu, she said.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization earlier this week raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to 5, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent.

Flu pandemics occur when a new strain of the virus arises to which most people have no natural immunity. There were three in the 20th century: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed an estimated 40 million to 50 million people worldwide; the 1957 Asian flu pandemic that caused about 2 million deaths worldwide; and the 1968 Hong Kong flu that killed about 1 million.

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

Nonetheless, Vigil said, every winter health professionals have to beg people to get a flu shot.
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State toll-free flu hot line: 1-866-850-5893