Sheehan

Beware hazard of flu frenzy

Staff WriterMay 4, 2009 

On Thursday afternoon, my happy-go-lucky kindergartner climbed into the minivan with a look of terror on his face.

"Mom, I have something very serious to tell you about," said Franklin, waving a yellow sheet of paper. "It's called the pig flu.

"Do I have it?!?"

Until then, I had managed to tune out the hyperventilating TV reports. I had rolled my eyes at the stack of cautionary brochures at the bank. I'd even made a few callous jokes about deals on airfare to Cancun when I heard an acquaintance canceled a trip to Mexico because of the swine flu outbreak there.

But when my younger sons came home from elementary school with neon warnings about H1N1, the collective panic was impossible to take lightly.

Guess what? The tips for preventing swine flu are the same for preventing every other kind of flu. Not to mention the common cold, pinkeye and most stomach viruses.

Wash your hands often. If you get sick, seek treatment. Otherwise, stay home.

There is a medical term for this. It's called common sense.

I know, I know. On Sunday, state public health officials confirmed North Carolina's first case of H1N1 -- with an expected confirmation to follow and five other probable cases. The confirmed case is an Onslow County man; his wife is expected to be the next one. The Onslow man is under mandatory isolation at home, receiving treatment. I wish him, his wife and the others well.

But remember, every year hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the nation contract the flu. And, every year, about 36,000 of them die. During early flu outbreaks, we sometimes fall into a pattern of daily death counts, which have the saving grace of encouraging folks to get flu shots.

I understand that swine flu is different from the "regular" flu. We don't have natural immunity. And we don't have a vaccine -- yet. In fact, seed virus for formulating a possible vaccine will be delivered to GlaxoSmithKline this week.

But if the breathless coverage keeps people out of church, or wearing masks, on Sunday -- or makes them wary of people of other nationalities -- that's nuts.

I asked state Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler about all this. His agency sets up the state's pandemic command center to fight the flu.

He conceded that right now it's all swine, all the time. But he explained that the only tool public health officials can count on in a possible pandemic is raising public awareness. They don't know whether swine flu will peter out like SARS or return far more deadly in the fall, as it did in 1918, killing at least 50 million people around the globe.

"Getting the word out is the only way to make sure people are alert before the disease spreads," Cansler said.

Oh, they're alert, all right.

I tried to talk my youngest son off the ledge, assuring him that (a) he's not sick, and (b) there's no need for panic, yet. It took, oh, maybe a dozen tries.

Don't get me wrong. I hope the state's command center grows cobwebs. I hope public health officials have nothing to worry about next fall.

I also hope we find a way to take on the challenges of swine flu without scaring everyone to death.

Listen to Ruth at 3 p.m. today on WPTF 680 AM's Bill LuMaye Show.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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