Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Viral Fear

With the school year upon us, it is probably time for another installment of Swine Flu 101. My kids have already had the flu, or some sort of viral bug, this year, and I cough and sputter as I write this. Feels like I have had this bug for a month or more already.

This year’s flu season is looking to be pretty rough. On a day when I called my son in sick from school, 7 other kids were absent from his class, and 5 from from my daughter’s including the teacher. Does this mean I should panic? No. But, should I use some common sense? Yes. Sick kids need to stay home. Because sick kids get other kids sick, and then they all miss school, and that is no good for anyone’s education.

Is this a challenge in that I have to miss work when I am home with a sick kid? You bet. Two working parents on furlough and with no local family who can help makes sick kid days tough. Are my kids ever sick on furlough days? Of course not. Are they sick on a day when I have meetings scheduled back to back and incredibly important, career-limiting deadlines, of course. But, a sick kid is a sick kid and they have to stay home.

If you don’t already have a plan for how you are going to handle your child’s illness this year, it is a good idea to make one. Chances are you are going to have a sick kid. Chances are that when your kid is sick, you are carrying the germs and just not showing the symptoms, making you a prime vector for whatever the disease of the moment is. Viruses are typically most transmissible (ie contagious), before you show symptoms. That is the evolution at work. A successful virus is really good at spreading itself before you know it is there, and can fight it. That is how it ensures its survival. Having you home too, with your kid, is just not a bad idea.

In the meantime, should we panic? Definitely not. H1N1 is out there, in our population, right now. It has pretty much made it into the mainstream at this point. Doctors appear to be just assuming their patients have it now, and not sending every patient out to be tested. You should view this as a good thing. If doctors are not so panicked that they feel they need to test every suspect case, then the cases are mild, and the flu is doing what it is supposed to do in an evolutionary biology sense. It is becoming less virulent. Another hallmark of a successful virus is that it does not kill its host, as a live host means it can be spread to more and more people.

Dr. Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University estimates that we are now down to a Stage 1 pandemic. Stage 1 is the lowest level. Yes, people are going to contract this. Category 1 is equivalent to a moderate (not mild, but not severe) seasonal flu. Like seasonal flu, he predicts this is going to tend to affect the elderly and the immune compromised the worst. Because this effect is being added to the usual seasonal flu effect, it is going to be noticed. But, it is predictable.

What to do in the meantime? Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, stay home when you are ill, and do the same for your kids. What to do about all the others around you coughing and sneezing and not following this advice? A little hand-washing goes a long way. Do help yourself to the Purell and other sources provided to you to clean those items you touch that are out there being touched by everyone. But also remember, viruses are not biotic. Antibiotic wipes and gels won’t work against viruses, and there is lots of evidence that these contribute to the breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. Antibiotic soaps and the like are not allowed in my home. Alcohol-based products like the hand-sanitizers are antiseptic, meaning they kill just about everything and kill it good. These, so far, are not linked to generating antibiotic resistance, are recommended by my personal doctor, and are allowed in my home.

No comments: