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Amid the media flurry surrounding reports of swine flu worldwide, the public may worry about receiving mixed messages on what to do to address the threat.
Health officials learned over the weekend that more than 1,600 people in Mexico are possibly infected with the swine flu virus. With the first confirmed case in Spain, the disease has hit European shores. And the tally of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States has now hit 40, according to a statement by the World Health Organization on Monday. Health officials have warned that this number is likely to rise.
But what does it mean for the public in general, now that there's an official state of public emergency? "Oprah" Show Health Expert Dr. Mehmet Oz talked to "Good Morning America" this morning about how the public should interpret what's going on, and what people can do to protect their health.
"We hear the word emergency and, of course, our first reaction is, 'What's going on here?'" Oz told "GMA "anchor Robin Roberts. "That's a very normal response; we're human. Someone says 'emergency,' you jump back."
Still, health officials and infectious disease experts said that the federal government took the step of declaring a public health emergency to mobilize resources to better confront the swine flu menace, however it may evolve.
"We're not really going to know for sure what's going on until another week or so," Oz said.
Even as federal health agencies declared a public health emergency, most infectious disease experts emphasize that there are steps people can take to safeguard their health. These simple preventive measures include washing hands frequently and avoiding people who are coughing or sneezing.
"There is a role for everyone to play when an outbreak is going on to try to reduce the impact," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "At an individual level, it's important people understand how they can prevent respiratory infection. Frequent hand-washing [is an] effective way to reduce transmission of diseases."
Oz said that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also another important way to safeguard your health.
"The most important technique is to use a hand sanitizer, and cover your nose if you do sneeze," Oz said. "All the things your mother told you to do will be effective today."
The following are answers to some other common questions about swine flu.
What's the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, and is swine flu a pandemic?
Cases of swine flu thus far have only been classified as outbreaks, not as an epidemic or pandemic. An epidemic is a outbreak, usually localized, in which a particular disease afflicts more people than is considered normal, or "expected," based on past experience. A pandemic refers to an epidemic on a larger, global scale. A flu pandemic occurs with the emergence of a new virus that can spread easily among people. When a flu virus mutates in such a way that it forms a novel version, it means people typically have little to no protection because their immune systems have no experience fighting the virus in the past.
How does the swine flu spread?