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The Swine Flu Blues

April 29, 2009

I just finished reading one of my daughter’s school library books, “Fever 1793,” by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Based on the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic that killed as many as 5,000 residents of Philadelphia (almost 10% of the estimated population of 55,000) it is the fictional story of 14-year-old Mattie and her struggle to survive as loved ones fall ill, thousands flee the city, and social order breaks down.  It is a well-written page-turner, and a great book for older kids (10 and up) and adults. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the population’s ignorance of what caused the disease, how it spread, and how to treat it.  Back then, doctors and laymen alike blamed a miasma or “bad air” coming from a rotting shipment of coffee beans that had been dumped on the city dock.  Bleeding was a commonly prescribed treatment (clearly physicians had no imagination; it was also used to treat just about everything from hemorrhoids to bad breath). 

Thank goodness we live in the 21st century.  Although we’re still chastened by Mother Nature from time to time, we are certainly much more capable of dealing with infectious disease than at any other time in human history.  And yet…

Here we are, once again faced with a wicked virus that somehow mutated from causing problems only for animals into something completely different (I’d cue the Monty Python theme here if this wasn’t such a serious subject).  Even with its vast knowledge, powerful technology and instant communication capability, the scientific medical community is scrambling to understand and stop the spread of Swine Flu before it becomes a global pandemic.

At this point, what we do know is very basic:

  • We should not panic. 
  • We should be washing our hands at the drop of a hat!  Good old soap and water and alcohol-based hand sanitizers are both effective.  (See “A Whole Bunch of Us are Liars with Biohazardous Hands” and “Howard Hughes Would Have Loved Purell” in my archives).
  • Anyone who feels ill should stay at home.  No school, no work, no grocery store.
  • If you don’t have a Kleenex handy, sneeze into your arm or shoulder, not your hands.  Then wash them anyway, even if you did have a tissue.
  • Call your doctor right away if you or anyone in your family has symptoms.  They mimic a “regular” human flu:  fever, cough, chills, body aches, headache, sore throat and fatigue.

I think it’s also important to get a bit of perspective.  According to the CDC, every year in the U.S. an average of 36,000 people die and over 200,000 are admitted to the hospital due to influenza-related complications (yes, even the garden-variety seasonal flu can be a killer).

For the latest news check the CDC‘s website.  In addition to a lot of general information there’s a helpful archive of past daily briefings plus a link to the most recent updates.

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