Saturday, March 18, 2006

Boo! It's the Bird Flu!

Bird Flu Public Education Poster in China

Saturday's Pensacola News Journal has an old-fashioned boogeyman article about planning in Northwest Florida for a potential bird flu epidemic.

Reporter William Rabb apparently was detailed to attend one of those "influenza preparedness" workshops being staged by FSU's Robert McDaniel for county agencies and businesses around the state. What's really scary about his article is the paucity of useful health preparedness information Rabb shares. The closest the reporter comes to suggesting practical preventative measures is to ask a few rhetorical questions:
"Are you prepared to:
  • Wear a surgical mask all day, every day at work?

  • Keep the children out of school for two months?

  • Be locked in your own home by law enforcement if you're sick and won't voluntarily stay away from others?"
The only other information the PNJ passes along appears in a sidebar, misleadingly titled "Tips to Prepare for Flu Outbreak." It reads more like a marketing boost for business consultants and the will-writing industry.

Here y'ar:
  • "Companies should establish a clear line of succession in case top management is out sick or dies;"

  • "Families should draft wills or specific instructions on who can care for children if parents die or become ill for extended periods;" and

  • "Churches and child-care organizations should devise plans for quickly setting up orphanages in case large numbers of parents die."
These "preparation" tips for bird flu are reminiscent of, and about as useful for most readers, as the old duck-and-cover nuclear war joke:

How To Prepare for Nuclear Holocaust

1. Loosen all restrictive clothing (ties, belts, etc.)
2. Bend over.
3. Place your head firmly between your legs.
4. Kiss your ass good-bye.

There seems to be no doubt that a mutated H5N1 bird flu virus could cause a catastrophic pandemic. Still, there's no confirmed case, as yet, of human-to-human transmission of the virus. And the news is not all bad.

As reported on NPR's All Things Considered this week, scientists have discovered what specific changes in the H5 virus would be necessary before it can become transmittable by humans to other humans. The CDC also has "developed a rapid diagnostic test" for humans directly infected with the bird flu virus.

In the meantime is there nothing we can do for ourselves except write a will and pick foster parents for our children? Not according to new sources other than the News Journal.

In addition to the usual travelers' precautions, the Canadian Broadcast Corp. has a few suggestions of a palliative variety for home health care. The United Kingdom's Health Department has a few more common sense precautions, such as --
  • do not visit bird or poultry farms or markets
  • avoid close contact with live or dead poultry
  • do not eat raw or poorly-cooked poultry or poultry products, including blood
  • wash your hands frequently with soap and water
  • covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible;
  • disposing of dirty tissues promptly and carefully – bag and bin them;
  • avoiding non-essential travel and large crowds whenever possible;
  • maintaining good basic hygiene, for example washing your hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to your face, or to other people;
  • cleaning hard surfaces (e.g. kitchen worktops, door handles) frequently, using a normal cleaning product;
  • making sure your children follow this advice. agrees, most notably "keep your distance from people who are coughing or sneezing" and "wash your hands."

Hard to believe, but the News Journal doesn't mention any of these. To be sure, such measures are so basic as almost to be banal. But that last advice about washing hands seems all the more necessary in light of reported studies showing "10 seconds of scrubbing with soap and water is effective at washing away most viruses" and in "another study, only 83 percent of people leaving public restrooms had washed their hands." Worse, "only 24 percent of men and 39 percent of women say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing."

Do panhandle residents have dirty hands? Maybe the News Journal should not wash its own hands of the subject until it finds out.

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