As some schools and businesses close or implement telework policies because of concern about the swine flu, a number of companies and organizations are taking advantage of the media coverage surrounding the illness. A Thursday Wall Street Journal article explains how makers of soap, hand sanitizers, and air purifiers are using the swine flu frenzy to pitch their products. And an E-mail message that hit U.S. News inboxes on Wednesday claimed that asthmatics should be particularly concerned about swine flu.
So we asked two experts: Should asthmatics stay indoors out of fear of an impending influenza pandemic? Turns out, there's no way to know whether the currently circulating swine flu poses a greater threat to asthmatics than to other people. "It is so early in this outbreak and our understanding of this virus is so new that I don't think anybody knows" how asthmatics will be affected, says Michael Anderson, vice chairman of the National Commission on Children and Disasters, which is charged with reporting to Congress and the president on the nation's readiness to address kids' needs during a catastrophe. "It's true of almost any virus that if you have severe asthma, you can have a worse course of illness," but that's not always the case, says Anderson, who is also an intensive care pediatrician and associate chief medical officer at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
But the swine flu outbreak is a good reminder for asthmatics to get vaccinated against the flu annually. A standard annual flu shot isn't likely to offer protection against the swine flu, but it could prevent another serious illness. "Influenza is bad for asthmatics," says David Rosenstreich, director of the division of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "They tend to get more complications than people without asthma. That's especially true of [asthmatic] children."
Asthmatics who think they have the swine flu or who may have been exposed to the swine flu should call their doctors right away, get tested for the virus, and, if their doctor recommends it, start antiviral treatment immediately. Just one antiviral medicine—the oral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir)—is recommended for asthmatics and works against the current strain of swine flu. The antiviral drug Relenza (zanamivir), which is inhaled by mouth, is not recommended for use by asthmatics or those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because it can decrease lung function and cause bronchial spasms in those people.