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Originally published Monday, September 14, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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Jerry Large

Healthful approach to flu season

I'd like to take this opportunity to scare you, but it wouldn't be right. I want you to wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay away...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I'd like to take this opportunity to scare you, but it wouldn't be right.

I want you to wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay away from me when you're sick.

So, I thought that with the flu being so much in the news this would be the perfect time to bang the death and destruction kettle and get people to do what we should all do anyway.

However, freaked-out people can be more dangerous than germs.

We do have a flu outbreak, and more infection is coming.

I don't envy public-health officials who are trying to get people to view the flu seriously enough to take sensible precautions, without pushing us into panic mode.

Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County, told me the agency is using the kind of campaign it developed a few years ago when it appeared the avian flu was headed here.

As part of the response, the county puts signs on buses and distributes posters to restaurants and schools — stay healthy, stop germs, that kind of thing. And it suggests getting vaccinated, particularly if you have a high risk of complications from the flu.

"What we need now is for people to act on the message," she said.

The seasonal flu vaccine is starting to be available, now, but swine-flu vaccine won't be distributed until some time in October.

The seasonal flu visits us every year and doesn't get people too excited, because we tend to focus on what seems different, like Avian flu and swine flu.

But the seasonal flu ought to get our attention because it's blamed for the deaths of 36,000 people in the U.S. every year. Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief of communicable-disease control for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said, "If we understood more about seasonal flu, we would have a better perspective on the current H1N1 outbreak, which it turns out is more similar than different to seasonal flu."

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For a while it looked like we were going to have to get three doses of vaccine this year, one for seasonal flu and then two for swine flu. But early tests suggest one shot may be enough for the swine flu.

Exposure to some earlier, related virus, or maybe past H1 vaccinations might have left people with an improved reaction to H1N1, or swine flu, so that a single dose of vaccine would be enough for immunity.

But since the H1N1 vaccine won't be available until sometime next month, the flu will have come and gone for many people. Kids are back in school and expected to start showing up with the virus soon.

So what to do? For a start, officials say keep your germs to yourself.

Wash your hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, keep sick children home, don't take your germs to work.

And don't worry too much.

Duchin said, "Most children and adults who get the flu will recover without needing a doctor's visit, especially people who are generally healthy."

In fact, antiviral treatments are not recommended for people who are not at high risk for complications and don't have severe influenza. Rest, drink lots of fluids. Take care of yourself.

Karasz said she understands it can be hard finding child care or losing wages (flexible leave policies would help), but she said, "It's important not just for yourself, but for your whole community."

Don't disregard the message just because it's simple. "A lot of people know these messages because that is what mom used to say," Karasz said, "but we hope everyone will take this seriously this time around. It's basic hygiene and it is a good thing to do."

OK, let's shake on it. Um, maybe not.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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