By Wally Kennedy

Globe Staff Writer

Dr. Cynthia Croy, a family practice physician in Joplin, said that she's seen an increasing number of flu patients in her office over the last week.

"The patients I have seen feel like they have been hit by a truck. You are sick. You are very ill, and you know it," Croy said.

Each year, approximately 36,000 people die in the United States from complications related to the flu. In Missouri, there are approximately 1,000 influenza deaths each year.

With increasing reports that a particularly nasty influenza virus is active in the Joplin area, what can a person do to decrease his or her exposure risk?

"Washing your hands is a good start," Croy said. "There are a number of things you can do. Some are better than others."

Croy said staying away from people who are coughing is a good idea.

"It's all about inhaling the virus. Don't get too close to people who are coughing. If you do, think about holding your breath," she said.

She said parents might want to think about sending anti-bacterial soap - the gel type that evaporates - to school with their children. If that's not practical, parents should remind their children to simply wash their hands on a frequent basis while at school.

If workers share a telephone in the workplace, she said it might be a good idea to bring alcohol wipes to work to periodically disinfect the telephone's receiver.

"It's very difficult to do this at this time of year, but stay away from congested places if you can. Places like Wal-Mart or the grocery store. Anywhere you are around a lot of people is going to increase your odds of coming into contact with the virus," she said.

"If you get sick with the flu, you should stay at home. But for most, it's not practical to stay home for seven days to recover from the flu. A person is most contagious the day before they know they have got it."

A flu shot, she said, is still the best protection.

"It really takes two weeks to get the maximum benefit from a flu shot. But, it can help lessen your course (the length of the illness) within three days of getting the shot," she said.

It is not clear yet whether the A-Fujian virus that is causing deadly outbreaks among children in Colorado and Texas is active in the Joplin area. If it is, parents should know that they can take steps to minimize the severity of the illness, she said.

"If they can get the child to a doctor within 48 hours of the first symptoms, they can get anti-viral medication that will cut their course in half," she said. "That also helps reduce the spread of the virus to other members of the family.

"But, it's got to be within 48 hours. If you don't, there is not a lot we can do other than to make sure you don't come down with pneumonia."

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