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Hand Washing May Be Most Effective Flu Prevention

Posted by Jane Akre
Thursday, November 29, 2007 4:48 PM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Flu Drugs

Flu Prevention

U.S. Govt on pandemics
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CDC on mask use
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British Medical Journal
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A pandemic of worldwide influenza is overdue scientists believe.

During an influenza outbreak or widespread pandemic, everyday life can be disrupted including schools, government, food delivery and medical services as widespread illness and even death grips a population.

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 to 40 million people worldwide, more than were killed in World War I.  One to two million died as a result of the 1957 pandemic and about 700,000 died in 1968 from a pandemic.

That’s why Britain, Japan and the U.S. are all stockpiling anti-viral medication and the flu vaccine.  But will that be effective when and if the outbreak occurs?

It depends on the strain of influenza.    

There are three strains flu currently circulating among us.  A seasonal flu is responsible for about 36,000 deaths per year and is the strain most vaccines and medication target to lessen symptoms.

The bird flu or avian flu H5N1 is spread by migratory birds to mammals. In rare cases it has transported to humans. Since 2003, avian flu H5N1 has killed 200 people but its transfer to humans is rare.

A pandemic occurs when the virus mutates and infects the human population which has no immunity. A mutation on the avian flu H5N1 is the leading suspect to become a strain that could evolve into a pandemic. 

At the present time there is no vaccine for it.  And H5N1 is resistant to two antiviral medications used for the flu.  It is unknown whether two other antivirals, Tamiflu (oseltamavir) and Relenza (zanamavir) would work against the H5N1 virus until additional studies are done.

A vaccine cannot be developed until a particular strain causes an outbreak of influenza that can be identified in humans. Even then, growing the virus in hens’ eggs takes six months and a supply may not be sufficient if a pandemic is global. 

With such uncertainty about the ability to find and distribute a worldwide vaccine, focus is turning to simpler and cost effective proven preventatives.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, researchers report that drugs may be less effective than using a mask or hand washing with soap and these low cost measures should be given priority in research. 

"Mounting evidence suggests that the use of vaccines and antiviral drugs will be insufficient to interrupt the spread of influenza," they wrote in the report.

The researchers reviewed 51 studies to find that gloves, gowns, masks and washing your hands at least ten times a day, or a combination of all measures may be the most effective method to stem a spread of flu.

The flu is spread by water droplets that come from a cough or sneeze and a mask can filter out the large droplets.

The CDC has issued guidelines for using a mask if you are afraid of either transmitting or receiving the virus.   And since flu can spread from within six feet of an infected person, who may by asymptomatic, you are advised to avoid coming in contact with crowds. 

Hand washing by young children is a particularly effective way to halt the spread of viruses.

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