Caring Currents

Swine Flu Deaths: Keeping Sane and Safe

Last updated: Oct 23, 2009

Here in California where I live, the news hasn't been good this week, with 11 swine flu deaths reported. And nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported almost 300 deaths since the first of September. No question these are serious numbers, and there's plenty of reason for anxiety, so don't be hard on yourself if you're fretting.

But the best way to handle anxiety, I've found, is to face fear with facts. If you understand what you're afraid of, you can take steps to protect yourself. And if you feel you've been proactive, you can take a deep breath, knowing you've done what you can.

Here's what you need to know:

Be patient and persistent. While there has been some confusion and disorganization at some of the earliest flu shot drives, that's no reason to give up. (In some states, clinics have announced flu shot events, then people arrive to find signs posted saying the vaccine isn't available after all.) This is happening because distribution is well behind schedule; The CDC originally promised 50 million doses by the end of October, and right now we're at 12.8 million doses of swine flu vaccine currently available. Still, 12.8 million people vaccinated is a lot, and there should be plenty for people at priority risk.

If you have children under 18 in your family, get them vaccinated now. The vaccine is here, and it's being distributed widely at hospitals, medical centers, and in some schools. If you contact your doctor and make an appointment, you may be able to get it as soon as tomorrow or this weekend; many medical centers are holding Saturday flu shot events. Or you can wait until it's offered free at your child's school; New York City, for example, has announced that all children in the public school system will be offered free vaccines starting October 28th.

If you or someone in the family is pregnant, you're top priority -- call your ob/gyn now. The risk is serious. If you don't have health insurance or access to a personal doctor, go to your local public health clinic.

If you or someone you care for is a health care worker, opt for vaccination. This includes workers in assisted living facilities and other senior housing with medical centers. If you have a family caregiver or hospice nurse who's also working in a hospital or medical facility, it makes sense to ask if she's been vaccinated or plans to have the vaccine soon.

Those with chronic illnesses receive priority vaccinations. In general, this type of priority has focused on those with compromised immune systems. But if you have asthma, you should also talk to your doctor about moving up the queue -- since H1NI attacks the lungs, asthma sufferers are at higher risk.

If you or those you care for are over 65, you can relax a little. More than 90 percent of all the September and October deaths have been in those younger than 65. Experts believe that previous exposure to older flu strains similar to H1N1 is protecting older adults.

If you're in the 18-65 age range and don't have a chronic illness, play the waiting game. The vast majority of healthy adults are weathering swine flu with mild symptoms, so if you do get sick, you'll likely feel crummy for a week or two and recover. Yes, it would be nice to get vaccinated, and yes, when the vaccine becomes available to all, you should get it. But for now, cross this off your worry list and try not to get sick.

The H1N1 epidemic is a moving target right now, and the situation is different in every state and changing all the time. For the lastest information, you can go to the CDC's H1N1 website, or google the name of your state and the phrase "H1N1 influenza." The infectious disease center for each state maintains its own updates, as well.