Network of 'flu friends' could help, says health ministry

Government sends advice leaflet to every home as 28th British case is confirmed

Britons who contract swine flu must establish a network of "flu friends" who can shop and collect medication on their behalf, new Government guidelines suggest.

Asking flu friends to pick up your prescription from a GP and do your shopping, rather than going out yourself if you feel ill, is one a key recommendations in a swine-flu leaflet being posted today to every home in Britain. It is the biggest health campaign of its kind since "Don't Die of Ignorance" leaflets were distributed more than 20 years ago to combat the threat of Aids.

"Do not go into your GP surgery or local accident and emergency department unless you are advised to do so or you are seriously ill, because you might spread the illness to others," the leaflet says. "Ask a flu friend to go out for you."

People are warned not to rely on face masks to stop the spread of the H1N1 virus and are advised to use tissues and wash their hands regularly with soap and water or a disinfecting gel to limit the risk of being infected by touching contaminated surfaces such as door handles, computer keyboards, telephones and remote controls.

"You may have seen face masks being given out to the public in other countries on the news," the leaflet adds. "However, the available scientific evidence shows that these basic face masks don't protect people from becoming infected. The best way to protect yourself and stop the spread of flu viruses is by using and disposing of tissues and washing your hands."

In Mexico, where face masks are widely worn, officials said the swine flu epidemic might have peaked after the country recorded a fall in the number of new cases. However, Mexico still has more confirmed infections – 590 cases including 25 deaths – than anywhere in the world.

Restaurants and cafés in Mexico City are scheduled to re-open today, and government officials are discussing when schools and businesses can resume normal opening. Meanwhile, swine flu is continuing to spread in the US, with 286 laboratory-confirmed infections, and the first cases reported in Colombia and El Salvador.

In Britain, the number of confirmed cases rose to 28 yesterday: 24 in England and four in Scotland, with a further 333 under investigation. Five schools in England have been closed. The latest case was an adult from Slough, Berkshire, who was associated with travel to Mexico, health officials said.

The Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, warned that it was too early to assume the swine flu outbreak was a mild infection just because no one in the UK had died.

"There have been deaths in Mexico and the Mexican health system is probably not as well supplied as we are with drugs like antivirals," he said. "So at this stage I think it would be premature to conclude this is a mild infection. We need to be very cautious when we are dealing with children and that is why, in each of the school outbreaks so far, we have had local public health teams tracing contacts and getting children and others on antiviral drugs on a precautionary basis."

The swine flu information leaflet suggests that, in addition to staying at home if suffering from symptoms, washing hands regularly and using disposable tissues, people should watch television and listen to the radio for news of what else can be done if the virus begins to spread.

"Because it is a new virus, no one will have immunity to it and everyone could be at risk of catching it. This includes healthy adults as well as older people, young children and those with existing medical conditions," the leaflet says. "While the current situation is serious, there is good reason for us to be confident that we can deal with it."

Antiviral drugs taken within 48 hours of the illness developing can help sufferers to recover more quickly and relieve some symptoms. A successful vaccine might take several months to develop, although drug companies are planning on producing one when it is completed, the leaflet says.

What are the risks to children?

Q Are children at particular risk of contracting swine flu?

A The H1N1 strain of the virus seems to be infecting a disproportionately high number of younger people, between the ages of 20 and 50. There is no evidence at present to suggest that children are at any higher risk than anyone else. However, it is well known that schoolchildren tend to spread flu viruses faster than the general population because they mix closely with one another in classrooms and playgrounds. This is why closing a school is often an effective way to limit the spread of flu.

Q If children in affected schools are being given Tamiflu, should we all be taking it as a precaution?

A The time has not yet come for the entire population to be taking the antiviral drug Tamiflu. At present, the Government is trying to limit the spread of H1N1 by closing schools where students are known to be infected and, by distributing the medication to teachers and the other students in the hope of stemming the outbreak, and limiting the severity of any further infections. There is no point in taking Tamiflu if the risk of catching flu is minimal.

Q Why does the Chief Medical Officer think the virus might not be as mild as others suggest?

A Sir Liam Donaldson merely said that there was no reason to think it might be mild. Equally, there is no reason to think that it might be severe, although early indications suggest few people are dying from the H1N1 virus. However, even if it is a "mild" outbreak, a pandemic affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide still translates into a lot of deaths. Then there is always the fear that the virus might get into the much denser populations of the southern hemisphere, multiply there and become more severe, only to re-emerge in the northern hemisphere next winter as a far deadlier pandemic.

Q Why has the Department of Health sent advice leaflets to every household in Britain?

A It indicates just how seriously the Government is treating the situation. There are many unknowns about this strain of H1N1 swine flu, so the authorities have to be seen to be acting responsibly by warning people of the dangers and telling them how to minimise the risks. The facts in the leaflet are in many ways common sense, but they have to be given directly to the public so there is no confusion about what the official advice is in terms of how we should be reacting to swine flu.

Q What happens next?

A This depends on the spread of the virus. It may peter out over the summer, or continue to spread until an official pandemic is declared by the World Health Organisation.

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