The fear was real, people were sick, some were dying. H1N1 flu was spreading and my clinic was filled with patients with cough, high fever, nausea and severe muscle pain. Many more were calling, frantic to know my advice on how best to protect themselves and their families. Should they stay home or continue their daily lives? What about a vaccine?
As we enter the influenza season of 2013, I’m reflecting back to 2009, when we saw the first influenza pandemic in about 40 years, caused by the H1N1 swine flu. A pandemic flu, different than seasonal flu, is caused the by the emergence of a new flu virus for which there is no prior immunity. Between 2009 and 2010, when H1N1 was circulating widely, the CDC estimates that as many as 1 in 4 people in the United States had H1N1. Many think we got off easy, compared to other flu pandemics we’ve experienced in the past century. Tell that to the families of the estimated 8,870 to 18,300 US deaths attributed to H1N1. Most of those deaths occurred in people ages 18 to 64, not who we think of as “typical” flu victims.
Vaccine development for a pandemic flu can take four to six months. That’s four to six months of fear and worry. So what do we do to protect ourselves, our families, our friends and colleagues?
In a word, prepare.
Just like we prepare for winter, storms and other natural disasters, we can prepare for the next flu pandemic. Research shows that hygiene practices coupled with social-distancing can decrease the risk of flu transmission from person to person. Hygiene conjures up complicated images, but really, it’s good hand-washing practices, covering coughs properly and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Social-distancing is about staying home from school or work if you are ill or avoiding close contact with people who are ill. Twenty-second hand washing with soap and water or use of hand sanitizer and social-distancing have been proven to reduce the risk of contraction of flu-like illness.
With new technologies, schools and employers should be embracing ways to prepare for the next pandemic flu and protect their students and employees. The university where I am currently pursuing an advanced degree has a strong pandemic flu emergency plan with a process outlining their social-distancing and hygiene steps in the event of a declaration of a public health emergency or in consultation with public health officials.
This is a strong plan, but in the early days of the spread of a new influenza virus, before such a declaration, there is likely to be a lot of confusion. There is currently no university-wide absenteeism policy for illness – it is decided upon by individual instructors. The university should adopt a flu absenteeism policy, effective upon discovery of a new flu virus circulating in the U.S., to allow class absence and work/class telecommuting without penalty due to flu illness, coupled with provision of hand-cleaning supplies and masks to be made easily available campus-wide. This is a reasonable step that could be adopted by many employers, schools and organizations.
In our busy, schedule-driven lives with our tendency to think “it’s just a flu,” these steps may seem bothersome to enact. But this flu season, honor the memories of the victims of H1N1 and take steps to prepare for the next flu pandemic – your health and possibly your life may depend on it.
Christy Bridges worked in primary care medicine for over 12 years. She is currently pursuing a master in public health in health behavior at UNC-Chapel Hill.