Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 11:00 UK

Swine flu: Your questions

Maureen Barker
Dr Baker is Honorary Secretary of Council to the RCGP

Governments around the world are striving to contain a new flu virus suspected of killing more than 100 people in Mexico.

Experts warn swine flu could spark a global pandemic.

BBC News online put a number of your questions to flu expert Maureen Baker, Head of Pandemic Planning at the Royal College of General Practitioners.


Is there a proper definition of how severe a disease is before it can be classed as a pandemic? Chris Bonnello, Birmingham

Dr Baker: I believe a pandemic is a disease that spreads round the world. In the context of flu, this is when a new strain of influenza virus emerges to which people have no previous resistance, meaning it easily spreads from person to person and from country to country.

I'm pregnant and wondered if pregnant ladies will get preference for any vaccination? Sarah Murray, Northamptonshire

Dr Baker: If a vaccination for swine flu becomes available, this will not happen for several months. As and when that happens, we expect that guidelines will be issued regarding which groups of people should be higher priority for vaccination.

I have a six-month old baby and we are due to visit a friend who has just returned from Mexico. Would you advise staying clear of those individuals who have had recent travel to affected areas? Sarah Jones, London

Dr Baker: It is difficult to give specific advice as it probably depends how long ago this friend was in Mexico and whether your friend feels well. You should probably weigh these things up and then decide whether to meet your friend just now or not.

Is swine flu going to be the same as bird flu, i.e. a moral panic, or should we actually be concerned? Chris Berry, Wirral

Dr Baker: I believe we should be concerned but not get into a panic. Clearly there is significant potential for this outbreak to develop into a pandemic but, as yet, this is not inevitable. Any flu is more serious than a cold as a small number of people can develop complications of flu, such as pneumonia. The other factor that concerns us in respect of pandemic flu is that large numbers of people can fall ill within a short period of time and this has major implications for health services.

How long can the virus survive in the air after an infected person has coughed or sneezed? Matthew Sheldon, Derbyshire

Dr Baker: Sorry don't know. I expect this information will become available as we learn more about this particular virus strain.

My husband is nearing the end of a chemotherapy course and we would like to go on a cruise but his immune system is low, will travel be a problem? Marion Vanner, USA

Dr Baker: I would suggest you keep a close eye on the developing situation over the next few weeks. Your husband should consider consulting his physician for advice nearer your intended travel date.

Will washing your hands kill the virus on your hands and is an antibacterial soap better? Tim Smith, London

Dr Baker: Washing with soap and water is an effective way of cleaning hands.

Should people who were asthma sufferers as children be worried by this outbreak? Graeme Pearce, Birmingham

Dr Baker: So far, we have no information to suggest that people who have a history of asthma are at any higher risk of complications from this strain of flu.

My friend has recently got back from Mexico and has been feeling ill and now I have developed what seems like a normal cold. I have had it for about four days and there is no sign of getting better. I haven't been to the doctor. What do you advise? Sarah Woollard, Lincolnshire, UK

Dr Baker: I think if you have symptoms of a cold - and have had these for four days - then this is almost certainly a normal cold. For more detailed advice (or if your friend wants further information) it might help to contact NHS Direct.

What is the incubation time of swine flu from point of exposure? Mrs Catherine Edwards, Cardiff, UK

Dr Baker: I don't believe we know enough yet about this illness to be able to say. I would expect this sort of information to become available over the next few days.

Is the basic flu jab sufficient to protect against this virus? Janice Ward, Banbury, UK

Dr Baker: No - so far as we know at present.

When flu symptoms arise we are told not to bother the doctor, stay at home, keep warm and drink water. Good advice usually but in this case, how do you know when it is necessary to contact the doctor? Lesley Buckley, Ely, UK

Dr Baker: It is good advice. However, people will be able to get more information from NHS Direct. If swine flu develops into a pandemic, and reaches the UK, then the public will receive information on leaflets, and from television, that will advise on what to look out for, in terms of worsening symptoms, that should prompt seeking help.

How does 'flu' actually 'kill' someone? How long does it take from becoming infected with virus to death, if that is the outcome? Graham Munn, Stevenage, UK

Dr Baker: Flu is an unpleasant illness but one that normally leads to complete recovery within a week or so for most people. The danger from flu is mainly from complications, especially pneumonia.

If people who have flu become much worse, especially if they start to have breathing difficulties, pneumonia should be suspected.

If pneumonia develops, that probably needs to be treated in hospital with antiviral and/or antibiotics. Some patients with pneumonia can deteriorate very quickly, others may have an illness over a number of days or even weeks.

The swine flu is from Mexico but how did it come about and is it going to spread in the UK? Sana Mir, Birmingham, UK

Dr Baker: Presumably a new strain of flu developed in pigs and then passed to humans (probably people who work with, or live in close proximity to, pigs). At present, we don't know if it will spread to the UK but the authorities are closely monitoring the situation.

Is there a risk that if the emerging swine flu H1N1 virus comes into contact with the established bird flu H5N1 virus that the two could mix and cause an even bigger pandemic risk? Sarah, Coventry, UK

Dr Baker: Any new strain of flu poses a risk of developing into one that can quickly spread and turn into a pandemic. Even if these two strains were to meet and lead to evolution of another new virus, I would have thought that would take some time and were it to happen would probably be neither more or less dangerous in itself than any new strain of flu.

We have booked a holiday to Cancun Mexico in August we have got young children, should we cancel and go elsewhere? Myroulla Christoforou, London, UK

Dr Baker: Hopefully by then the outbreak will have passed, however travel advice is regularly updated on the Foreign Office website. Let's hope you are able to go and have a lovely holiday!

We are a GP surgery with over 8,000 patients. We are obviously awaiting guidance from the Dept of Health. In our pandemic flu plan we have been advised by our local PCT to provide 8 masks a day per member of staff - could you clarify the projected usage of a mask - ie: should they be treated like surgical gloves and disposed of after one use? Caroline Dray, Ramsgate, UK

Dr Baker: Masks become ineffective when they become damp or after a few hours.

There has been a lot of debate on the use of facemasks and some authorities say that, in the community, the most effective use is to give to patients who may have symptoms when they present in the surgery - that should help reduce the infectivity of that patient to surgery staff and other patients. I expect the Department of Health will issue guidance on use of facemasks if we move into a pandemic phase.

I have no spleen and I'm concerned that I will find it hard to fight the flu virus if contracted. Is there anything I can do to pre-prepare myself? Stella Lawrence, Norfolk, UK

Dr Baker: You should be very careful in having meticulous hand hygiene, washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using alcohol hand rubs.

Should this become a pandemic strain, some patients (and people who have had splenectomies may be in this group) may be directed to take a course of antibiotics if they develop flu symptoms. If this course of action is recommended, then GPs will receive guidance and arrangements will be made for patients for whom such treatment is recommended.

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