Our heroine weighs in on swine flu…rationally

With all the crazy talk surrounding swine flu these days, I thought a more optimistic and rational approach might help talk people down off their various freak-out ledges. Come with me, gentle reader, on a journey to the land of Reason and Sanity…

Really if we want to freak out, we should look no further than the seasonal flu. That shit is balls-ass scary. …If you stop and think about it. …IF each case and each death were reported on the news every day. …IF it was a new strain with no human resistance that we don’t know much about.

So far this year, about 13000 people in the US have died of the regular, boring, run-of-the-mill Seasonal Flu. So far this year, 150 people in Mexico are suspected to have died from Swine Flu.

“Um, still waiting for that optimism…” Put this into context. Consider all the deaths so far this year from car accidents, cancer, etc. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of this illness, but certainly it is not the killer bug of epic proportions that some have talked themselves into fearing. We should probably relax and stop worrying about daily fluctuations in statistics that are sensationalized due to novelty…and the bomb. Stop worrying about that too while you’re at it. We simply don’t have near enough information to justify a panic.

The effects of Swine Flu appear to be very similar in severity to Seasonal Flu — so far — unlike the more severe 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. That is, in terms of death rates. So far. Despite reports that the flu is “worse” in Mexico, there is not enough data to support that conclusion. It’s possible there were more deaths reported in Mexico because it has been brewing there longer and there were more cases — meaning it’s possible that many cases went unreported because of a lack of severe symptoms back when people thought they had the regular flu and treated it as such (i.e., stayed home with soup, rather than reporting to authorities for testing). So, in other words, a rate of 70/10000 deaths seems high, but consider that many thousands of cases may have gone unreported before the scare which would bring that number way down.

The growing concern now though is the rate at which Swine Flu can spread throughout the population because of its novelty. Also of concern is the way in which the virus makes us sick. If this is the type of flu to cause a “cytokine storm“, it can be lethal in otherwise healthy people — meaning that young, nubile 20-somethings (for example) may be at risk compared to the traditional elderly and infant population. It’s scary when healthy people die, particularly as that has been the pattern so far in Mexico.

What should we be worried about?

1) Swine flu, if it spreads, will cause many illnesses at once potentially leading to economic problems when people can’t show up for work, health care problems when the system is overloaded and the workers are sick and can’t report in, and social problems when people panic because they are picturing “The Stand” happening all around them.

2) Fear itself. Speaking of panic, many people being sick at once also means many people dying at once. People die of the flu all the time, but it is spread out over a flu season. With humans having no immunity to the novel Swine Flu, illnesses and death have the potential to occur in a big clump, making people lose their shit.

3) People are kinda dumb. If people don’t practice safe hygiene (and let’s face it, folks — do you wash your hands every time you go to the bathroom? or touch a garbage can? or handle money?) and continue to report to work while sick (which people will most certainly do, all the time, and particularly in this economy when staying home from work is an unaffordable luxury), the flu may spread rather quickly.

What do I do?? WHAT DO I DO??? For the love of god, you’ve gotta tell me!!”
– Homer Simpson

1) If you are experiencing flu like symptoms (especially in an area with suspected swine flu cases), please for the love of all that is rational stay the balls home. Please. Yes, it really does suck that you have to miss a few days of work, but it sucks more that your coworker’s baby just died of the flu because you went to work.

2) Hygiene. It’s not that complicated and can be achieved in a few easy steps:

– Wash hands with regular soap. Wet hands, add soap, lather for 15 seconds, rinse with warm water, towel off, and use the towel to turn the taps off. Avoid soaps with Triclosan. It’s overkill.

– Sanitizer is regular alcohol. It is not an antiviral or an antibacterial drug. You are not going to create an epic race of super bugs by using 62% ethyl alcohol gel with your hand washing routine until this blows over. Use disinfectant wipes (regular alcohol is fine) on your workstation (phones, computers, etc) and/or common-use items. Wash dishes with soap.

– Sneeze and cough into your arm or shoulder rather than your hands. If you sneeze or cough into your hands, use sanitizer and then wash them immediately. If you are coughing profusely onto yourself, you should probably not pick that day to give out your patented special hugs.

Do not wear a mask. People mostly wear them incorrectly and they tend to give a false sense of security. Just wash your hands, avoid licking strangers for a while (I know it’s hard to resist, but we all have our crosses to bear during this thing), and you should be fine.

3) Don’t fall for the latest panic-driven, opportunistic charlatan taking advantage of the frightened masses. Such as:
4) Don’t assume that symptom management = wellness. Flu virus can be carried in the absence of symptoms. Just because you’re not freely snotting at the nose because you took a half a bottle of DayQuil doesn’t mean you’re germ free. You still have to wash your hands…and avoid licking people.

5) Don’t pronounce the word “pandemic” as “apocalypse”. Pandemics can be severe or mild — the word indicates global distribution, not severity.

The irony is that when this all blows over, people will go: “Why was everyone freaking out? Nothing even happened. Stupid scientists and/or politicians and/or media.” If this turns into nothing, I suspect we will have the CDC (in the US), the WHO, and the PHAC (for us Canucks) to thank for that. Although correlation doesn’t equal causation, I don’t want them to back off just to see if they are having a real impact. An overreaction is better than an underreaction, IMHO — the kind of underreaction that may have allowed the Swine Flu out of Mexico in the first place.

So relax…in a vigilant sort of way. Wait until an infection pattern makes itself more clear. Be hygienic and proactive, but don’t panic. So far, this isn’t a SARS-level emergency. And please, please don’t be the cocky little shits you know you are. We all do it. We all go to work/school sick. Stay the frig home if you’re sick! Please and thank you.

For a fantastic and rational resource on Swine Flu, see the blog Effect Measure. Paul Revere provides continual updates, usually more than once daily, on topics concerning Swine Flu — from the hard science behind flu genetics to CDC updates and discussion. It’s all there. He’s also affiliated with a database website and forum called Flu Wiki which has even more general flu information.

Edit: Also see this blog (H5N1) for lots of resources and links on avian flu and swine flu.

[One final note: I am not an expert in infectious disease. I do work in health care, but my area of practice is rehabilitation. Much of the information comes from the internet resources of people who are experts in this field, but it’s possible I’ve misinterpreted some information. If anyone sees any errors, please let me know and I will correct them. Thank you. Also, just to make myself clear: I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of this flu. I simply want to emphasize that so far we do not have enough data to panic and run for the hills. So don’t panic.]

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2 responses to “Our heroine weighs in on swine flu…rationally

  1. I really just don’t know. I’m not sure if I can go a day without licking strangers. But to ensure survival of the species I shall try very, very hard to refrain from doing so.

  2. Pingback: So what’s up with Swine Flu these days? « skeptigirl