Mass. Docs Hurry To Understand New Strain Of Flu
By Matt Quan
UPDATED: 6:38 pm EDT April 27, 2009
BOSTON — Since the outbreak of the swine flu was called a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health, the medical community in Massachusetts has been rallying to prepare for and understand the disease.
“Just because no one in the U.S. has died from it yet, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned and prepared,” said Dr. David Ozonoff from the Boston University School of Public Health. “The medical community is rallying against this outbreak and doing everything it can to understand its transmission and how to prevent it.”
What has concerned doctors and scientists about the swine flu is that it is being transferred from human to human unlike the bird flu a few years ago. In addition, it appears that no individuals have had immunity to this particular strain of influenza said Ozonoff.
“It is still early and not much is knows yet about the strain,” said Dr. Benjamin Kruskal, director of infection control for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and chief of pediatrics at Harvard Vanguard’s Somerville office. “The concern is that it appeared in multiple areas at once meaning that it is transmitted very easily.”
Doctors and scientists suspect that swine flu is passing from person to person through particles in the air or from personal contact. “A medical incident command center is up and running in Boston and allows us to coordinate our response,” said Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
Ferrer said many of the different Boston agencies are working together to prepare against an outbreak in the city. Police and Fire departments, school officials and hospitals met Monday and are all working together to coordinate their efforts.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell has been doing a study on the effectiveness of masks on flu transmission and said it is unsure the ability of masks to protect against the swine flu. “Our study showed that masks did minimize transmission of the flu from particles five microns or larger for those infected,” said Patricia Fabian, post doctorate research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “We’re still unsure how well masks can prevent those not infected from getting sick.”
Doctors and scientists are not taking swine flu lightly and feel publicity coverage of the outbreak is warranted.
“Thirty-five to 40,000 people die of influenza in the U.S. a year,” said Kruskal. “However, we do have a basis for understanding the swine flu because it is a form of influenza, unlike understanding SARS which was completely new.”
The Boston Public Health Commission is urging people to be concerned, but not to panic.
“Symptoms are very similar to the flu and should be treated as such,” said Ann Scales, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission.
To help prevent the spread of the swine flu Kruskal said people should avoid close face-to-face or direct physical contact with people who are ill. Maintain good hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water often or use waterless hand cleansers, such as Purell. You should also cover coughs and sneezes with tissues or your sleeve, not your hands.
Patients with flu symptoms should contact their primary care physician.