A never-before-seen strain of swine flu has turned deadly in Mexico and is causing milder illness in the United States and elsewhere. While authorities say it’s not time to panic, they are taking steps to stem the spread and also urging people to pay close attention to the latest health warnings and take their own precautions.

“Individuals have a key role to play,” Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on April 27, 2009.

Here’s what you need to know:

Q: How do I protect myself and my family?

A: For now, take commonsense precautions. Cover your coughs and sneezes, with a tissue that you throw away or by sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand. Wash hands frequently; if soap and water aren’t available, hand gels can substitute. Stay home if you’re sick and keep children home from school if they are.

Q: How easy is it to catch this virus?

A: Scientists don’t yet know if it takes fairly close or prolonged contact with someone who’s sick, or if it’s more easily spread. But in general, flu viruses spread through uncovered coughs and sneezes or–and this is important–by touching your mouth or nose with unwashed hands. Flu viruses can live on surfaces for several hours, like a doorknob just touched by someone who sneezed into his hand.

Q: In Mexico, officials are handing out face masks. Do I need one?

A: The CDC says there’s not good evidence that masks really help outside of health care settings. It’s safer just to avoid close contact with someone who’s sick and avoid crowded gatherings in places where swine flu is known to be spreading. But if you can’t do that, CDC guidelines say it’s OK to consider a mask–just don’t let it substitute for good precautions.

Q: Is swine flu treatable?

A: Yes, with the flu drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, but not with two older flu medications.

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