Hygiene best defence against flu

Basic hygiene is the best protection people can adopt to protect themselves from influenza.

That's the message from health professionals in the wake of an outbreak of swine flu which has claimed almost 150 lives in Mexico.

There are 10 suspected cases in New Zealand, as well as another 56 possible cases. Influenza can spread from coughs or sneezes, but little particles of virus can linger on tabletops, telephones and other surfaces and be transferred via the fingers to the mouth, nose or eyes.

Little could be done to prevent an outbreak of flu from spreading, health experts cautioned, but they said common sense measures could help individuals protect themselves and the number one action was handwashing.

Director of Public Health Mark Jacobs said it was important for people to realise that if they had a cold or an influenza-like illness, there was no reason to be overly concerned unless they had recently returned from the affected areas of Mexico or North America.

"They should look after themselves as they usually would, with plenty of fluids, stay away from work if you're unwell and take panadol for pain or fever."

Dr Jacobs said the most important thing people could do to protect themselves was regular and effective hand washing.

"When coughing or sneezing cover your mouth and nose with a tissue," he said.

"Afterwards promptly dispose of the tissue and wash your hands. Keep your hands away from your mouth, nose, ears and eyes."

Symptoms of influenza include:

* Sudden onset of illness;

* fever above 38degC;

* fatigue;

* muscle pains;

* runny nose/cough/sore throat; and

* in some cases, people also have vomiting and diarrhoea.

Dr Jacobs said the vaccination for seasonal influenza was unlikely to protect people from swine influenza.

"However, I would encourage people to have an influenza immunisation as it's something they can do to help themselves stay healthy," he said.

The Ministry of Health has also issued guidelines on how people can prepare for an influenza pandemic:

* Talk to your family and friends about health hygiene - hand washing, and safe coughing and sneezing;

* make sure you have an emergency survival kit for all emergencies. Plan for having about a week's worth of essential supplies such as non-perishable food, as well as plenty of fluids;

* include paracetamol or ibuprofen (for fever) in your home emergency survival kit;

* have a plan for what you and your family would do if you had to stay at home during a pandemic;

* try to keep well people and sick people apart; and

* sharing bedding, clothing and utensils may spread infection, but you do not need to wash a sick person's bedding, clothing and utensils separately from the rest of the family's.

Other tips include:

* Take your shoes off before entering your home. Shoes can track all manner of viral and bacterial matter into your home; and

* sanitise and disinfect common areas. This includes computer keyboards, doorknobs, countertops and any home/workplace area that more than two people may use at any point during the day.

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