Archive for the ‘Flu Masks’ Category

Flu Hysteria

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

The 2009 outbreak in humans of a new flu strain, genetically related to Swine flu, though it has not been isolated in pigs, is probably a mosaic of swine, bird, and human flu viruses, but is actually of unknown origin. Thus, the very name is misleading since the disease cannot be transmitted by eating pork. Yet the Egyptian Government has destroyed perhaps 300,000 animals (a political ploy against Coptic Christians?), and Russia used the flu panic to ban pork imports from Spain and Canada. Moreover, U.S. immigration phobics see the “Mexican flu” as a fresh reason to argue for a wall along the border-even though the first case was probably seen in this county! Then too our panicky V.P unwittingly made the case against travel by Amtrak.

This strain transmitted from human to human, appears in most cases so far to resemble the usual yearly flu, being  clinically mild, with exceedingly low mortality. Haunted by memories of the 1918-19 pandemic when 50-100 million died world wide, sensational media coverage erupted along with excessive or inappropriate warnings by some  health authorities, and governments, and even the World Health Organization (WHO).  We are presently awash in hysteria, even now as this particular epidemic cases appears to be in decline.

You may recall  those terrifying forecasts during the avian flu panic of 2005 (deaths to date: 257, according to the World Health Organization) and the SARS panic of 2002-2003 (774 deaths). By contrast, garden-variety flu typically kill upwards of 36,000 Americans a year.

A recent article in The Times of London notes that in 1919 precautions included mustard baths, Bovril (a meat extract), gargling with salt water, and especially port wine.

As noted in the Wall Street Journal, there are no longer “… several million exhausted… (soldiers) living in filthy conditions and close quarters along two sides of a 450-mile (war) front. Or troops and sailors being moved in crowded trains and ships, or being treated in overcrowded hospitals. And at least in Western cities, it is no longer typically five-to-a-room in squalid tenement housing.” As science writer Wendy Orent has pointed out in the New Republic, “Only the precise conditions of World War I’s Western Front — a true disease factory — could have created a flu as virulent as the one responsible for the 1918 pandemic.”

No one can predict, of course whether a more virulent strain of flu may evolve in the fall, causing another epidemic with more severe clinical consequences. We will have to watch what develops in South America in the next few weeks, since this is a harbinger of a possible second wave that usually strikes in the colder months in the northern hemisphere.

But as to a pandemic, WHO almost had it dangerously wrong when Dr. Chan, its Director General  threatened to go to “category 6.” As Dr. Henry I. Miller, an epidemiologist, noted in a letter to the New York Times,“a warning system based solely on how widely a virus has spread, but that does not consider the nature of the illness it causes is intrinsically flawed…it would classify as “pandemics” the frequent but largely inconsequential outbreaks of virus-caused colds and gastroenteritis.”

Yes, epidemic flu may yet turn out to be a significant problem this year, as indeed it had been in 1957, 1968 and numerous other times in history. But another 1918?  Highly unlikely in this day and age. All we can do is assess the risks, be ready for surprises, and stay calm in a world that has always been full of uncertainty.

Notes on Flu and Flu Masks

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

If you’re worried about catching the flu, a facial mask helps, but there is little use for a mask outdoors where the risk of contagion is virtually nil.  I keep seeing photos of poor citizens in Mexico City walking around with masks, which does virtually nothing to prevent contagion, but succeeds in keeping people estranged and frightened of each other. The only place you might want to use a mask is indoors, in a closed environment such as stores, planes, trains, etc. As of this writing the hysteria over flu has died down, and people are now focusing again on the economy, celebrity gossip, or crime.

The Centers for Disease Control and infectious disease experts recommend if you’re a health care worker and presumably anyone who really wants better protection than a surgical mask against airborne transmission of flu, SARS, etc. you should only settle for masks that meet the n95 rating.  These masks filter out at least 95% of airborne particles labeled “most penetrating” size of 0.3 microns.  Don’t forget too that the fit of the mask is also very important; if you can breathe around a mask that isn’t hugging your face, no filter is going to help much.

If you want to stock up in preparation for a possible new outbreak you can buy  n95 masks from Alpha Pro Tech ($80 for 35 masks and a respirator).  Better still, it may be equally wise to wash your hands after suspected contact with a sick person.

Unfortunately, another epidemic of flu is probable in a few months.  Whether it will be a relatively mild illness as the present strain appears to be, or a more virulent one, no one at this point seems to know.  Keep posted, but don’t panic.  For my part, I’m not rushing out to buy a mask just yet.