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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Flu and You

Like many of you I have been watching the news stories concerning the supposed outbreak of the “Swine Flu.” How much of this is hype on an otherwise slow news day? How much of this is government agencies attempting to deflect criticism and responsibility? How much is fear-mongering? I have no idea, but I suspect there’s a lot of all of these and more.

As I was considering what to write for this article, an e-mail on this topic came in from a friend. Will Harrison is a retired Navy doctor who has spent many of his retirement years traveling (on his own dime) to such places as Darfur, the Sudan, offering his services as an expert on infectious diseases. As this story of the swine flu was making headlines, he decided to give his take on all the hubbub, sending his learned insights out to family and friends. I asked him if I could use some of his material for this article. He not only agreed, but sent me even more useful info.

The first thing in all of this is what this flu (short for “influenza”) should rightly be called. It is being called “Swine Flu.” The official name for this flu virus is the “H1N1 Flu.” But my friend says it should be called the “Mexican Influenza,” because that is where it is coming from. Dr. Will says, “The vast majority of cases are in Mexico; most of the US cases can be traced to exposure either in Mexico, or to someone who came from Mexico. The same applies to other international cases.” Case in point, the five year old little boy who died in a Texas hospital lived across the border in Mexico.

Because the nature of such illnesses often are frightening to people, they aren’t exactly sure how seriously they should take the grave warnings that are coming at us so fast. The term “pandemic” is being bandied about causing even more concern. Allow me to explain this term “pandemic.” If you break this word down into its simplest form, you will find it is the combination of two Greek words. First you have “pan,” which means “all.” Then you have the word “demic,” which means “people.” The idea behind a pandemic is that it affects, or in this case, infects an awful lot of people. As of this writing, Dr. Will says there are fewer than 500 documented cases worldwide! Hardly a pandemic. He says, “When we have 100,000 proven cases of the Mexican strain of H1N1 Flu on all five continents, then it will be a pandemic.” So why are some people dying in Mexico, but the confirmed cases in the US are non-fatal at worst? Experts are strongly suggesting that it is directly related to the inadequate Mexican health care system.

What can you do to avoid this flu problem? Here are some of Dr. Will’s ideas for your consideration: “Don’t Panic! Be sensible. If you don’t need to go to the mall, or the movies, or travel by air, then don’t. Avoid crowded, congested, poorly ventilated places. This virus is spread by AIRBORNE and DROPLET contamination. Simply stated: if someone coughs or sneezes into the air, droplets of infected material drift around until they fall. The virus is relatively short lived (a few minutes). It doesn’t hang around on inanimate objects waiting for a victim. The one caveat to that statement is doorknobs. After airborne contamination, doorknobs are the second most common means of transmitting respiratory viruses. If a person coughs or sneezes into their hand, then they open or close a door, some infected secretions cling to the doorknob. If you touch that doorknob within a few minutes, and then put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth – you could transmit the virus. So when you go to crowded, public places, always make sure that you have some antiviral handy wipes to clean doorknobs, toilet handles, etc, before you use them. Failing a handy wipe, a tissue will do.”

What about things coming in from Mexico? Is it safe to eat the meat products (particularly pork), and produce? Again, Dr. Will’s insight on this concern: “You will not get infected with H1N1 influenza by eating pork; pork products; or fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Mexico. (You might get infected if you kiss a pig, however!) On the other hand, all fruits and vegetables from Mexico, Central and South America should (always) be thoroughly washed before eating, primarily because of the risk of Hepatitis A and Cyclosporidiosis, which are much more hardy than influenza.”

Should the border with Mexico be closed until this influenza is under control down there? “It’s probably a good idea,” says Dr. Will, “at least medically.” But the border is likely to be kept open because of the political fallout that would come if we closed it. The medical experts advising this administration say we should keep the borders open. May I remind you that these medical experts are government appointees?

As is almost always the case, those most in danger of influenza are young children and the elderly.

Follow the advice of Dr. Will and you’ll be just fine!

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