It's time to start thinking about flu season. With White House advisors last week predicting that swine flu (also known as the H1N1 virus) could possibly infect 50 percent of the population and cause as many as 90,000 deaths, this should be anything but a typical flu season. People need to be ready — and responsible.
It's not too soon to prepare for a flu outbreak. New Orleanian John Barry, noted flu expert and author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, cautions that pandemics (the World Health Organization has labeled H1N1 as such) often begin early and without great fanfare. Consider the 1918 flu pandemic, which, like the current pandemic, began with a fairly innocuous first wave in the spring of that year. The 1918 flu ultimately became the worst scourge in history, killing at least 35 million people worldwide after it returned in the fall of that year. Widespread cases of the 1918 influenza appeared in late August, and Louisiana state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard recently told Gambit his office has noted a higher-than-normal percentage of reported cases of influenza during the summer months this year.
While these reports are scary, we caution everyone that preparing for flu season does not mean panicking. With the aim of raising awareness and not anxiety, Gambit offers the following facts and practical tips:
• At present there is no vaccine for H1N1, but one should be ready sometime in October. Early indications suggest the vaccine might require two doses. In the meantime, cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue away after use. Wash your hands often, and teach your children to do likewise.
• The Centers for Disease Control are not anticipating a vaccine shortage, although recent reports say there will be a limited amount of vaccine at first. It is recommended that priority be accorded to pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months, health care and emergency medical personnel, children 6 months to 4 years old and children 5 to 18 years old.
• A vaccine does not make you bulletproof. A good vaccine is 70 percent effective, an excellent one 90 percent effective. The 2007-2008 flu vaccine was only 44 percent effective.
• The swine flu vaccine will not protect against the seasonal flu. Plan to get a regular flu shot.
• If you do get sick, stay home. The real hero isn't the one who works despite being ill; it's the person who remains at home and doesn't infect his fellow employees. Return to work or school only after a fever has been gone for 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing drugs.
• To date, the H1N1 virus hasn't been particularly deadly, and most people outside the high-risk groups will not require medical care. If you do become seriously ill, seek medical assistance. Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza have shown some success in alleviating flu effects and may be prioritized for the seriously ill and those at risk for complications.
• If children show symptoms of swine flu — fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue — keep them home and take them to the doctor if necessary. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has urged all schools to have online and hard-copy lessons available for sick kids. Make sure your children's school has a plan for dealing with a flu outbreak. School officials have been cautioned against overreacting and summarily closing doors at the first sign of influenza, but if parents send sick kids to school, officials will have no choice.
• Businesses should have a plan, too. Besides threatening public health, influenza pandemics can wreak economic havoc. Supervisors should convince employees to stay home and telecommute if they or their children become sick. If our area experiences an outbreak, commerce will be affected — but it does not have to be decimated.
Finally, a word to our local, state and federal elected officials: Level with citizens regarding the epidemic's severity and what they should be doing. People need information, not half-truths cloaked with good intentions. As Barry puts it in a recent H1N1 paper, "You do not manage the truth. You tell it."