Influenza threat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2005, 12:00am

With the threat of pandemic influenza getting stronger every week, governments around the world are stockpiling anti-influenza drugs.

This isn't so much because these drugs will prevent pandemic influenza. The hope is that if people who catch the flu get treated early, it won't spread as quickly, giving time to manufacture enough vaccine.

The Australian, Canadian, US, Hong Kong and Japanese governments, in particular, have all accumulated vast amounts of the drug Oseltamavir (also known as Tamiflu), which is best able to control flu symptoms and prevent it from spreading.

Australia has so much that it's offered to provide Indonesia with 40,000 courses to help fight the outbreak of avian flu there. The fear is that, untreated, it could morph into a pandemic virus.

The Hong Kong government is doing what it can to control pandemic flu. What does this mean for you and me?

There are no guarantees that we'll all get the drugs. So far, most governments have designated key people - health workers, senior civil servants and emergency services staff, for example - who would be needed to ensure society kept going should a pandemic hit rapidly. Getting treatment if you're not a key person will depend on how prepared you are, so discuss it with your doctor on your next visit.

For example, is your doctor building up supplies of Tamiflu? Should you buy your own?

There are two important things to understand about Tamiflu. It's most effective if given within 48 hours of the start of flu symptoms. But it doesn't work against an ordinary common cold, so it's a waste of an expensive and important resource to use it every time you get a sniffle. Also, overuse may breed resistance.

So we need to become very good at knowing the difference between flu and a cold. Here are some pointers:

Fever This is common in flu. It's usually high (above 38 degrees Celsius) and lasts three to four days. Fever is less common with a cold and is usually low grade - under 38C.

Aches and pains This is a classic sign of flu. Your muscles feel as if nightclub bouncers have danced all over you and your skin may be so sensitive that even taking a shower is uncomfortable. This symptom is known as myalgia and is also uncommon if you have only a cold.

Prostration This is a feeling of such exhaustion that you have to lie down. It's common with the flu and hits you out of the blue. A cold tends to creep up on you.

Headache A severe headache is more common with flu than a cold.

Cough A flu cough is dry and can last for weeks. The cough after a cold usually brings up phlegm and should clear up within a week.

Sore throat /runny nose This is evidence that you've got a cold rather than flu. You can get these with flu, but they're not major symptoms.