Anyone who is up on their early 20th century world history is acquainted with the devastating 1918 Flu Pandemic (commonly known as the “Spanish Flu” and lasting from March 1918 until June of 1920) that spread nearly across the globe and killed an estimated twenty to forty million people. Researchers, historians and medical experts alike have been sounding the alarm for years concerning the likelihood of an equally virulent influenza virus, quickly spreading throughout the population and unleashing catastrophic numbers of casualties. Now, we have something called the “Swine Flu”, although there exists much controversy and debate over the name (in Thailand they call it the “Mexican Flu” and Israeli health officials have proposed adopting the same terminology, as the idea of using the word “swine” in a sentence makes some religious Jews uneasy), the general consensus is that this particular strain (H1N1 as it has been classified) is undoubtedly hazardous and may even be the real thing, as far as flu pandemics go. With nearly 2000 people in Mexico infected with this particular strain (with somewhere around 200 dead), and the numbers hovering around 70 in the United States (with one death reported earlier this morning), people are understandably freaking out.
However, considering the advanced modes of early detection and treatment, not to mention considerable medical advancements over the past 90 years, we could assume/hope we are not in for something as widespread and monstrous as the Spanish Flu of 1918. But you also need to factor into the equation the fact that the movement of people from place to place has exceeded anyone’s 1918 expectations, with globetrotting and frequent-flyer air-travel being what it is. Preliminary steps toward a possible vaccine formulation to fight this new virulent strain have been taken, but something like this would likely take months to produce and perfect. So what is a concerned parent to do? Hell, what is a concerned person to do?
Well, likely the first thing we need to do is to try to calm down, breathe a few times and know that, as gravely serious as this is, this headline grabber will pass (anyone remember the anthrax scare of 2002?). The natural human reaction to chaos and peril is a “fight or flight” response that, regardless of your reaction, tends to place you squarely in a state of tremendous stress. Worrying about germs, sickness, and airborne pathogens will not stave off any of the above, and will likely put you in a state of constant worry, thus diminishing the effectiveness of your immune system, and inviting in the sort of sickness you had been worrying about in the first place.
I would advise concern, but a sort of measured concern that comes with equal parts vigilance and unruffled coolness. The first, and maybe most effective, line of defense is hygiene. Be vigilant about washing your hands, as well as your children’s, in warm (if not somewhat hot) running water with soap, for a sustained period of about 30 seconds (try singing the “ABC song” with them while you do it, if they go for that sort of thing). Refrain from touching your eyes, mouth or nose with hands that are not freshly washed. The ever-popular surgeons mask, frequently worn in Japan by those who are sick or just trying to avoid sickness, is certainly not a bad idea (and it almost looks kind of cool and oddly fashionable). But, its true effectiveness has been called into question, and will not always protect you, or those around you, from airborne germs.There has been much excitement over the prophylactic benefits of flu drugs (Tamiflu, etc) and some areas are reporting an increase in sales of such drugs, as people stock up as a form of defense against the virus du jour. This is problematic for many reasons, the first being possible shortages in supply of such drugs leading to a surplus in some sectors and a deficit in others where such drugs are especially needed. Also, there have been notable reports that, along with the overuse of antibiotics, the overuse of said flu drugs could supremely backfire, leading to stronger, drug resistant strains of the flu virus, resulting in a more widespread problem.
So if you can, try to chill out, maintain proper hygiene, eat well, get plenty of rest, and think healthy thoughts as the world around us folds into a whirlwind of dread and chaos. And not that this is a neither pleasant nor comforting note to go out on, but it might help to remember that countless numbers of people die each year from nothing more than the common flu, but we still soldier on.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.
Parenting at the Crossroads