The swine flu strain thought to have originated in Mexico now appears to be a mild one contrary to initial reports, Clallam County health officer Dr. Tom Locke said at a May 1 press conference in Port Angeles.
Initial reports stated the virus, now dubbed H1N1, was deadly for people aged 16-40 instead of the usual flu victims - the young, the old and those with chronic diseases, Locke said.
Now there's strong evidence this virus strain will be mild, he said.
This virus outbreak is called a pandemic because the virus is new. An epidemic is a widespread outbreak of a known virus, Locke said.
The 45 "probable" cases in Washington as of May 5, with nine confirmed, were sent for testing to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Locke said it's hard to tell but those "probable" samples don't appear to match any known flu viruses.
It's most likely they are swine flu but they won't know until those test results are received this week, he said.
Flu outbreaks can range from those that occur every year to the worldwide 1918 outbreak, but so far the evidence is reassuring, Locke said.
It's hard to tell these flu samples from the remnants of the just concluded flu season, he said.
Locke said the strain is so mild it didn't attract attention until health officials noticed everyone who had it had returned recently from Mexico.
The goal is preventing the virus' spread, which is done in three ways: washing your hands, coughing into your sleeve and staying home if you are ill, Locke said.
Other tools include antiviral medications Tamiflu(r) and Relenza(r) that will arrive this week but only for those who need it, those who actually have the virus, he said.
Health officials are most concerned about the young, the old and those with chronic diseases, Locke said.
The stockpile of anti-viral medication is enough for 15 percent of the county's population and the first 25 percent of that, or 1,500 doses, is being released this week, he said.
Locke said those 1,500 doses may be all that's needed to contain the outbreak.
Creating a swine flu vaccine will take six months and the decision whether to do that will be made in the next month, he said.
Clallam County Health and Human Services Director Iva Burks said one effort is getting out information through the county's Web site, which also has numerous links to state and federal information.
"We're stressing hygiene for prevention. In other words, good health habits or everything your mother would tell you to do," Burks said.
Locke said most people are getting better on their own, so health officials don't want to use the anti-viral medications if they are not necessary.
People's immune systems are adapting to this flu strain as they have before in history "or else we wouldn't be here as a species," he said.
The flu's incubation period is one to three days, Locke said. This flu virus' incubation period might be longer but there's few confirmed cases at this point so it's hard to tell, he said.
The risk factor is being in Mexico within the past week, so if you have visited Mexico in the past seven days the health officials want to see you even if you have no symptoms, Locke said.
Officials don't want people to cancel vacation plans, because this strain is so mild, but every year public health officials could do a better job of containing the flu virus, he said.
Bill Bentley, superintendent of Sequim Schools, sent home a letter to students, parents and staff on April 30 regarding the swine flu outbreak.
"Currently, the Clallam County Health Department has advised that students can safely attend classes," Bentley wrote.
"Nonetheless, we have taken initial precautions including contact with local health officials, providing additional information to students and staff, monitoring student and staff absences and reviewing existing pandemic plans. If an outbreak were to occur, we would consult with our health department to determine the most appropriate action."
Bentley added that any updates regarding the flu's impact on the district is communicated through the district Web site, newsletters, phone calls, local television and radio broadcasts, e-mail and directly to students.
Sequim school officials also have posted information about preventing the spread of swine flu on the district Web site ( www.sequim.k12.wa.us) along with links to local, state and federal health departments.
Reach Brian Gawley at email@example.com.
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