Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu: What to do, and not do

There's a lot of news about swine flu right now, and for good reason. While it's impossible to know at this point whether this will lead to a flu pandemic, the potential does exist.

There's a lot that's still unknown about this flu strain, but there are some basic things that people can do--and other things people should avoid--at this point. I'm not going to offer medical advice, since I'm not qualified to do so, but most of this stuff is pretty simple.

Let's start with what you can do to protect both yourself and others. Most of these should be obvious, but they're worth repeating anyway.

1) Wash your hands. Use hot water and soap. A quick splash is not enough, you need to spend a bit of time. Recite the alphabet to yourself while doing it, and by the time you're done that should be about enough time. If you're unable to get to a sink for whatever reason, you could carry around some Purell or a similar product to sanitize your hands.

2) Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze. But don't sneeze into your hand! If you have a tissue, use that and then throw it away immediately. Don't keep a used-up disease rag in your pocket. If you don't have a tissue, then cough or sneeze into your elbow, like this:

Yeah, you might gross up your inner elbow, but it's better than getting gunk on your hands and then spreading it to others, or sneezing unimpeded and spewing germs all over the room.

3) Learn about the flu. As with any fast-moving and poorly-understood disease, there's going to be a ton of bad information out there. Inoculate yourself against it with good information.

Here are some good resources:Most of these sites also provide a lot of links if you want even more information.

4) Don't kiss any pigs. This is just a good rule in general.

So, those are a few simple things that you can do to cut your own risk and the risk you might pose to others if you happen to get infected. Now on to things you really should not do.

1) Don't go to work/school/public events if you're sick. Going out in public while sick doesn't mean you're tougher than the disease, it means you're a jerk who doesn't care about making everyone else sick. Unless you really want to be known as the guy/girl who spread disease to all your friends, just stay home.

2) Don't stick your hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose. Again, obvious. Even if you think your hands are clean, the mouth, eyes, and nose provide an easy way for diseases to get into the body. Best just to avoid them.

3) Don't listen to quacks. You're going to see a lot of scammers offering totally ineffectual "cures" over the next few weeks. There will be spam emails trying to sell you imaginary medicines, there will be people offering the insanely diluted liver of a diseased duck as a medicine, there will be holistic "healers" and homeopaths aplenty offering you products that are nothing more than a placebo. Don't waste your money.

4) Don't blame Mexico. I include this only because I've already seen people trying to use this outbreak to grandstand about illegal immigration (Google "swine flu" + immigration and you'll find lots of examples). That's utterly absurd. This outbreak could have started anywhere, and viruses don't care one bit about political borders. People who try to tie this to immigration are playing politics in the stupidest possible way.

5) Don't panic. Panic never helps, and there's no reason for it anyway. While H1N1 has the potential to become a pandemic, it's impossible to know how it will turn out at this early stage. There's a lot more we don't know about this flu strain than there is stuff we do know, so don't freak yourself out by jumping to conclusions that aren't based on fact.

As always, these lists are incomplete. But these are easy things to do, and they're good ideas even when there isn't a potential pandemic looming on the horizon.