I VISITED BUSY MEDICAL BUILDING in Columbia County this week just as the outbreak of swine flu began to dominate the news. On a stand in the lobby outside the main door stood a dispenser of hand sanitizer. You rub some of it on your hands to eliminate germs, including, we assume, the virus that causes the influenza A (H1N1) that is killing people in Mexico and now the U.S. I usually pass by these dispensers; I’m not a medical professional and I’m reasonably healthy. But with all the warnings about the spread of this potentially lethal bug, I stopped and put out my hands for a squirt of the stuff.
Oops. So much for preparedness. The dispenser was empty.
That felt more disappointing than scary. Then I decided it was a hopeful sign. Probably more people than usual are using hand sanitizer. They want to lower their exposure to illness, especially a life-threatening one. But couldn’t it also indicate that some of us want to reduce the chance that we could transmit something unpleasant to others?
Public health officials at the local, state, federal and international level face a particularly challenging task right now. Even in Mexico, only a handful of deaths are so far linked conclusively to the new variant of the swine flu virus that’s getting all the coverage. The other Mexican fatalities are only suspected and await further tests. Here in the U.S. there has been only one confirmed death as this paper goes to press, a toddler in Texas, though scientists have confirmed swine flu cases in at least six states at last count.
Keep in mind that flu—just regular, wintertime human influenza—kills as many as 35,000 people in this country each year, most of them elderly, very young or with compromised immune systems. That’s why the health department and other agencies promote flu shots each fall.
Officials want us to take precautions, and anxiety about possible health threats works as a powerful motivator. But raising the fear level can also have unintended consequences. A few years ago the county health and public works departments mobilized to combat the threat from West Nile virus, which appeared suddenly in the Northeast. It cost taxpayers large sums to test for presence of the virus and to eliminate the breeding grounds of the mosquitoes that transmitted it. A lot of birds died of West Nile, but very even got sick from this pathogen. And while it seems likely that the strenuous public health response may well have helped contain the threat, in retrospect it looks like the cost was greater than the benefit, assuming optimistically that the money spent fighting West Nile could have gone to more pressing health needs.
West Nile left some people skeptical about the dangers of new forms of infectious disease. Add to that the steady stream of high-profile alerts for health threats that affect a relatively small number of people who may have eaten contaminated food—this week it’s alfalfa sprouts—and it’s little wonder that we have trouble evaluating the dangers a new virus poses.
The last great pandemic in 1918-19 left as many as 100 million people dead worldwide, according to one recent estimate. Many of them were young and healthy before they contracted the virus. So the concern of scientists and medical personnel is certainly warranted. The broader question is how should those of us who have to go about our daily lives respond while the scientists try to piece together what’s happening here, in Mexico and in other places the new swine flu virus has appeared.
The least we can do is follow the practical advice the experts give us:
• Wash or sanitize (where available…) your hands and the hands of your young children more frequently
• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue
• Don’t share your germs by going to work or sending your kids to school if you/they have the fever, cough, aches, chills and runny nose symptoms associated with the flu.
You don’t have to believe that a flu pandemic looms to take the precautions listed above. These steps can help limit the spread of all sorts of more common illnesses. So while there’s no guarantee that making good hygiene a part of your routine will save you or the lives of people you love, these small, often unseen courtesies make this community a better, healthier place to live.