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Swine Flu and Chronic Conditions

Experts explain the risks of swine flu for people with chronic health conditions.
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Is everyone with a chronic condition at equal risk for swine flu?

"Anything that can affect the health of a person is going to be more of a concern for people with underlying illnesses," says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, president and CEO of New Island Hospital in New York, and a professor of clinical medicine. "People who're at an especially higher risk are those with underlying heart and lung diseases, or a compromised immune system."

Also at greater risk are "people whose immune systems are not well," says Stubbs, such as those coping with AIDS or chemotherapy, as well as children under 5. Because children this age haven't been exposed to as many viruses, "we put them in the same category as those with chronic illnesses," Stubbs says.

If you're coping with a chronic illness, you "should take the risk of this flu very seriously," says Glatt.

Should people with chronic conditions get a swine flu vaccine, when it's available?

In the U.S., H1N1 swine flu vaccine started to become available in October 2009, although vaccine production was much slower than predicted. Until there's enough vaccine for everyone, experts are recommending that the vaccine should first be given to:

  • Pregnant women
  • Health care workers and emergency medical responders
  • People caring for infants under 6 months of age
  • Children and young adults from 6 months to 24 years
  • People aged 25 to 64 years with underlying medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes

As with the seasonal flu vaccine, there may be people who shouldn't get the swine flu vaccine, including those with severe egg allergies or allergies to previous flu vaccines, the very young, and those with extremely compromised health.

The swine flu vaccine won't protect against seasonal flu, so it's important to remember that you'll need two flu vaccinations this season, not one.

How can those with a chronic illness protect themselves until a swine flu vaccine is available?

Swine flu spreads like the seasonal flu: primarily through droplets from coughs and sneezes. That's why tips for avoiding the swine flu are the same as those for avoiding the seasonal flu, and include:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid people sick with the flu.
  • When a vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated.

 And if you're not feeling well, stay home until at least 24 hours after your symptoms go away.

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