Monday, April 27, 2009

Avoiding a Swine Flu Pandemic

A new swine flu outbreak, which incorporates genetic segments from bird flu, is being urgently tracked by health officials in Mexico and on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I believe the worries about a pandemic, which could affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide, are exaggerated, simply because at least the last 10 outbreaks that were said to have pandemic potential died away in less than two years. I believe something has changed in our public hygiene that makes it harder for a flu outbreak to maintain momentum. But this also means we can slow down the spread of flu by doing more of whatever it is we are already doing in that area.

Scientists are trying to figure out what that might be, but the most likely area of concern is hand-to-surface contact. Based on that guess, these are things you can do to minimize the spread of flu:

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after contact with public transportation, work, school, cinema, shopping, and any place where large numbers of people from all over gather. Public health experts suggest using soap and washing for 20 seconds.
  • Clean surfaces that hands come in contact with, especially door knobs and hand rails. In tests, all-purpose cleaners and surface cleaners proved to be best for this purpose. They are quicker and safer than the specialized cleaning solutions you might hear about.

Finally, don’t let the fact that summer weather is coming to the northern hemisphere make you feel complacent about the flu. About 50 people died in warm weather in central Mexico last week because of the flu, which unlike most flu strains is hitting healthy young adults the hardest. Flu and similar viruses seem to be spread among humans mainly by hand-to-surface contact, and by taking familiar precautions in that area, you are protecting not only yourself, but the public at large.