Experts have been warning of a worldwide outbreak of a horrific influenza ever since 1997, when the first human cases of so-called H5N1 avian influenza were reported in Hong Kong.
Two years ago the news was filled with a similar threat – bird flu. We got lucky. The threat didn’t ripen into a pandemic. Now we are watching and waiting to see what happens with another type of influenza – swine flu.
A spate of ominous mounting human cases has suddenly cast the threat of a pandemic into the headlines once again: The alarming trends have led many public health experts to shed their normally cautious language when talking about the flu. The World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, Switzerland, recently raised the pandemic alert level to 4-just one step away from the likely beginnings of a pandemic.
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Preparations To Take & Precautions to Implement
People can take basic steps to prepare themselves and their families for the worst. While these two simple actions may seem like a pittance in the face of a swine flu pandemic, they could help to decrease your chances of infection.
1. Take the time now to learn about swine flu. This will help you begin preparing emotionally for an event that may now be hard to comprehend. Those who have prepared themselves emotionally and intellectually will be able to act quickly and wisely while the unprepared are still struggling with denial and inaction.
2. Get in a habit of practicing the basic CDC-recommended hygiene techniques that you should have been practicing all along (but probably haven’t):
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue away after you use it.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth since germs can spread this way. Your children will learn this quickly if you teach them.
- Get in the habit of washing your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. If you are not near water, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner. Although influenza spreads by respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing, it can be carried on other surfaces.
3. Buy some face masks now. I have taken the modest step of buying (for a few dollars each) some face masks to have on hand in case the pandemic begins, although their effectiveness is limited in blocking transmission of the tiny influenza virus. (Masks with a rating of N95 or higher are apt to be more protective.) Such masks may be in short supply when the pandemic begins.
4. Plan ways to minimize your contact with others as you conduct essential business. To be sure, if a swine flu pandemic arrives, it will not be up to parents to send their children to school or not. Schools will be shut down. Large public gatherings, such as sporting events, will be prohibited. However, the small decisions you make every day will help to determine how many potentially infected people you come into contact with.
Mark Jerome Walters is a veterinarian and the author of Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them (Island Press, 2004). A Visiting Lecturer at Harvard Medical School from 2001-2003, he is currently a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.