April 27, 2009— -- 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."
Simple Tips Can Stem Spread of Swine Flu
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?
Researchers are still investigating how easily the swine flu virus spreads, but experts said that transmission likely occurs the same way people pass on the usual flu: coughing or sneezing from sick people, shaking hands or otherwise touching people who are infected with the virus, touching surfaces and objects that sick people have touched.
Can I get the swine flu from eating pork?
No. There are no signs that people can get the swine flu from eating pork.
What are the symptoms of swine flu? How do I know if I have it?
The World Health Organization is working to develop a profile of the typical case of swine flu. but so far, the symptoms appear to be essentially the same as those for the usual winter flu. Oz said that these symptoms may include:
The only way to definitively diagnose swine flu is to have laboratory testing done to determine the exact subtype of the virus.
Can the swine flu be treated? What if I develop symptoms?
Yes. Swine flu can be treated with antiviral medications such as Tamiflu and Relenza, but treatment must be started within the first 48 hours after symptoms appear. If you have symptoms of flu, talk to your health care provider right away.
The CDC recommends the following steps to protect yourself from any kind of flu:
Avoid Sick People
Also, the best way to avoid getting sick is to avoid close contact with sick people:
"[Prevention is] no different than any other pandemic flu, and those are kind of simple things -- wash your hands a lot, don't shake hands or hug or kiss people if you're sick, don't go to work, self-quarantine yourself," said Peter Katona, an associate professor at the University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center.
The situation with swine flu is rapidly evolving, but here are some answers to questions on the top issues. Get the latest from the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention here: http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/
Here are some other Web sites for more information on swine flu:
Sources: CDC, World Health Organization and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.