Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine flu should prompt caution, not fear

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that people throughout the United States and beyond are searching for anti-viral medications, surgical masks and other supplies because of the swine flu outbreak. But I am concerned that people are over-reacting -- and wasting precious time and resources on things that should be a lower priority. If everyone in the United States was more diligent about hand washing, we would have much less to be worried about. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
  • All strains of influenza, including "swine flu," are transmitted by tiny particles most commonly found in mucus. If you don't come in contact with the secretions of a sick person's coughs or sneezes, you're unlikely to get sick.
  • The best way to prevent the spread of swine flu is a) for people who are sick to stay home and b) to wash hands frequently and thoroughly and avoid touching hands to your mouth, nose or eyes.
  • The best use of masks is for people who are sick to wear them when encountering other people. A simple surgical mask works fine for this purpose. This is an easy way to significantly reduce the risk to others.
  • Surgical masks are not effective as protection for people who must be around a person with swine or other flu. The CDC recommends that health care workers have properly fitted N-95 masks when caring for people with suspected swine flu or related illness.
  • The flu is a virus, not a bacteria, so stocking up on antibiotics won't help. Two of the four commonly used antiviral drugs for flu work against the swine flu, which is why you need to call a doctor as soon as symptoms appear.
Health officials appear to be taking prudent steps such as temporarily closing schools where an outbreak is suspected. As odd as it may be to see soccer games with nobody in the stands, that act by the Mexico government was exactly as planned in advance by world health authorities months ago when pandemic flu precautions were updated. The CDC has prepared an excellent reference for how to care for someone with the flu. If things get to the pandemic level, most gatherings will be curtailed, many workers will be expected to work from home, and hospitals will have challenges keeping patients properly isolated from each other if the numbers of infected individuals grows. We are a long, long way from that.

Here are a few credible places to go for information:

In my opinion, there are a few things that we should do:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Clean doorknobs and similar surfaces frequently and thoroughly using a disinfectant.
  • Make sure you get a flu shot every year. You can't get sick from the vaccination, although you might have a muscle ache for a day or two.
  • Urge colleagues, friends, family to be responsible and stay home if they are sick.
  • Check with the CDC or state health department to verify information that you get from other sources before acting on it.

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