Friday, May. 01, 2009

Swine Flu Tips

The global rise in swine flu has showed few signs of slowing. Now in 11 countries, the H1N1 flu virus was confirmed on Thursday in the Netherlands and Switzerland; in Canada, cases rose to 27 and in the U.S., the caseload increased to 109 in 11 states, with hundreds of school closures that sent some 160,000 students home. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that a new flu pandemic is imminent, yet some pharmacies (in New York City at least) are temporarily running short of the antiviral Tamiflu. So, no one would blame you for feeling scared about getting sick.

But when people get scared, they sometimes say or do dumb things. That includes Vice President Joseph Biden, who said Thursday morning on the Today show that the swine flu virus could spread easily on airplanes, and that he has advised his family against traveling anywhere on mass transit. "When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden told Today host Matt Lauer. "I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway." (See pictures of thermal scanners hunting for swine flu.)

In fact, as Dr. Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pointed out just a few hours later, there's no real risk for a healthy person in the U.S. to ride mass transit — not with the outbreak as small as it is currently. It's true that crowded trains and subway cars can be a vector for disease transmission if sick people are on board. You can catch the flu if you're within about six feet of a sick person — otherwise known as the "breathing space" — who coughs or sneezes on you, and a small amount of the virus can survive on inanimate surfaces. But with just a tiny number of cases in the U.S. right now, there's little risk that you'll encounter a sick person — certainly not enough to make it worth becoming a shut-in.

(To the Vice President's point about air travel: Aboard a plane, the air flows side to side, with air circulating in from above and traveling across rows — with little front-to-back air movement — before exiting the cabin. Most aircraft also ventilate the cabin with fresh air from outside and use HEPA filters to clean recirculated air.)

But misconceptions spread quickly during the early stages of a new disease outbreak. In Egypt, authorities culled some 300,000 pigs — even though there was no evidence that the H1N1 virus was circulating in these pigs or was actively passing from pigs to people. In France, authorities have said they want to ban flights to and from Mexico, even though WHO officials and other epidemiologists say such extreme measures are likely to hurt far more than they'll help. (The E.U. rejected the French request on Thursday.) "The risk of collateral damage [on top of the flu] is very real," says Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

With that in mind, here are five things not to do in dealing with the swine flu frenzy.