New flu in perspective

As long as authorities are alert, the rest of us can stay calm. Still, basic precautions are called for.

mexico swine flu 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
mexico swine flu 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
Gone are the days when a public health scare in Mexico or Hong Kong had little relevance for Israelis. No sooner had Shabbat ended when news arrived that the H1N1 swine flu virus could be threatening a global pandemic. Over 80 Mexicans have been felled. Hundreds more are sick. Possible cases have been reported in France, Spain and New Zealand (among a group of students and teachers who returned to Auckland via Los Angeles after spending several weeks in Mexico). Eleven cases of H1N1 have been reported in California and Texas, along the Mexican border. Some 3,000 miles away in New York City, health officials are examining whether eight students in Queens have come down with mild cases of the disease. And in London, officials breathed a sigh of relief after determining that the flu-like symptoms experienced by a British Airways cabin crew member on a flight from Mexico City was not swine flu. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared the disease a "public health event of international concern." The WHO threat level is currently set at 3. If a pandemic is imminent, it will rise to level 5. Public health experts find it worrisome that those affected are not mainly the medically vulnerable, whose immune systems may be compromised, but also many young and vigorous people. While swine flu is not new and cases of human-to-human transmission have previously been documented, the current H1N1 is the result of a mutation of genetic material from pigs, humans and birds. There is no vaccine for H1N1, nor do scientists know whether individuals vaccinated against regular flu will be protected. NATURALLY, there is a psychological component to the crisis. Images beamed around the world from Mexico City of nuns on their way to Sunday services and train commuters wearing surgical face masks create a sense of unease. Even the White House found it necessary to say that President Barack Obama was fine, thank you very much, in response to a disconcerting report that while in Mexico City, he met with Felipe Solis, an archeologist who subsequently died of flu-like symptoms. While epidemiologists gather their data in an effort to clarify the nature and extent of the outbreak, Israel, like all countries in our globalized world, is gearing up. Better to be prepared, as we were for the 2003 SARS scare, than to be caught off guard. H1N1 symptoms include a fever of more than 37.8°C (100°F), body aches, coughing, sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea. At this writing, there have been no confirmed cases of H1N1 flu here. Physicians are, however, diagnosing a 26-year-old Israeli who returned from Mexico on Sunday and had himself admitted into Netanya's Laniado Hospital. Obviously, Israelis who return from abroad feeling ill, with a fever, need immediate medical evaluation. Our Health Ministry has been in contact with health providers to ensure that cases of flu are promptly diagnosed and reported. Since carriers of the disease could themselves be asymptomatic, quarantining is not necessarily indicated. Still, the MDA is deploying special equipment in some of its ambulances should it prove necessary to transport highly infectious cases. THE potential crisis comes just as Ya'acov Litzman takes over at the Health Ministry as deputy minister. Litzman is a savvy, dedicated and personally modest public servant who grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although his haredi and non-Zionist United Torah Judaism party prefers (for religious reasons) not to have a cabinet vote, Litzman's talent and drive should not be underestimated. Moreover, Israel enjoys a highly advanced medical infrastructure; and ample supplies of Tamiflu, generally effective against flu symptoms, are available. We're also fortunate that with spring here and windows open, making ventilation easier, the virus should find our climate less than hospitable. As long as the authorities are alert, the rest of us can stay calm. Still, basic precautions are called for: Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth because germs spread that way. We should all stay healthy.