Thursday, April 30, 2009

On jumping on the panic train

Okay, so Doug sat down in my office today while I was working to help put out our most recent fire - swine flu. Between our general institutional expertise in areas like microbiology and immunology and the recent discovery of an as-yet-undetermined flu in our Child Care Center, the phones have been blowing up, and the fact that we don't actually have a Web page addressing the pandemic has become a glaring problem. So that's what I've been up to.

Doug was able to provide a bit of a reality check. "Do you know what swine flu is?" he asked. "It's the flu. It's avian flu and the regular flu and every other kind of flu, and it's going to end up the same way that the others did. We're all going to go crazy for a couple of weeks, and then it's going to be over until the next thing comes along."

And you know what? I can't make promises that it won't be like that. From a purely epidemiological standpoint, I can't speak to the seriousness of this disease. But from a numerical one, I can, and here it is: As of today, there have been 109 confirmed cases in the U.S. As of today, one of those has died. And he was a toddler. Which is sad, and I feel for his parents. But what do we know about the flu? It hits babies and old people harder than it does the rest of us. As with the regular, seasonal flu, if we keep an eye on our babies and our grandparents, we'll probably be okay.

"As with regular, seasonal flu." Sounds like the refrain from my neck of the woods. Symptoms? Cough, headache, body aches, fever - you know, like the regular flu. Precautions? Wash your hands, try to keep your hands away from your face, stay home if you're sick - you know, like the regular flu. Treatment? One of four different kinds of antibiotics - you know, like the regular flu.

Except this one is different. This one is Mexican. Ooooh.

And I'm not saying the flu, in general isn't a big deal. Epidemiologist David Ozonoff pointed out in a column in the New York Times that even seasonal flu kills about 40,000 Americans a year, which is, like, a lot. And if swine flu ended up causing that much carnage, we'd be in extra trouble. Our economy has it tough enough without massive absenteeism and still-more-overloaded hospitals.

But that hasn't happened yet. So far, there aren't enough swine-flu patients in America to fill out a show at the Roxy. And while I'm sure it's crappy for them, the rest of us would probably be safe to go back to work and stop dousing our kids with Lysol before they come back in the house.

But do keep washing your hands.

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