Don't throw that mask away just yet. The World Health Organization declared the swine flu - or H1N1 - outbreak a pandemic, meaning the virus is now a global risk. The disease has spread to 74 countries, with nearly 30,000 cases confirmed and many more suspected but not reported.
So far, the death toll has been mercifully light: 144 fatalities, 27 of those in the United States. Americans have been fortunate, but we shouldn't push our luck.
That means - with the summer travel season here - people should take basic precautions. Wearing masks isn't recommended at this stage. Washing your hands frequently is a flu-fighter. So is covering your coughs and sneezes - don't be shy about politely asking others to do likewise. And don't panic. The H1N1 virus has been mild in comparison with past pandemics. In the United States all but a handful of the 13,217 cases documented have recovered.
But we shouldn't get complacent. No one should underestimate this disease. Flu pandemics can be devastating. The 1918 pandemic killed an astounding 40 million to 50 million people. The 1957 pandemic killed two million, and another in 1968 killed one million.
Consider that during the flu season when flu shots are available for Americans every fall, between 250,000 and 500,000 people die worldwide each year. Even with antibiotics, ventilators and other modern treatments, this disease remains a killer.
What's worrying the WHO and other health agencies is that this pandemic may last through next fall when the regular flu season sets in. Suffering from one virus could weaken your immune system to the other.
So far there is no vaccine for the H1N1 strain but pharmaceutical companies are working on developing one, and there is an abundance of antiviral serum available. It won't prevent you from getting infected but it could ease the symptoms and help you recover faster.
The best course is to take reasonable precautions without going overboard.
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