Opinion

SATURDAY, JUNE 13, 2009

Flu teaches us to be ready

The novel H1N1 influenza virus, first called swine flu, seized the public’s attention in early May. Here in the Inland Northwest, a Kootenai County woman was Idaho’s first confirmed case, and residents immediately flocked to local stores for protective facemasks and hand sanitizer. Some people stocked up on food and water so they could stay home if the virus permeated the area.

Spokane’s first cases were a father and child, and parents feared the virus would spread. They worried about their children and the possibility schools would close, as they had in many states to prevent spread of the virus. Families panic-planned what to do with their kids if schools closed for an extended time but their workplaces remained open.

At the national level, people told pollsters that H1N1 prompted them to wash their hands more diligently to prevent infection and some said they stayed home sick from work and school with symptoms they typically ignore.

A virus is never desirable, but H1N1 inspired people to act on advice they’d heard from the public health world for years, and everyone was better off for it. Now the trick is continuing that behavior as the public’s alarm over H1N1 diminishes.

“We need to stay ready,” Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week. “We do expect H1N1 to return. We’re strengthening our planning for the surge of illness we expect in the fall.”

H1N1 provided the Inland Northwest a trial run without causing much damage. We’d be foolish to ignore its lessons.

People with flu symptoms and those with confirmed cases of H1N1 infection were advised to stay home for seven days or longer. But how many had enough food, medications and supplies, including pet food and baby items, at home to stay out of public contact for at least a week?

Planning ahead tops the lesson list. Emergency preparation at home makes sense for all sorts of possible crises. A stockpile of food, water, supplies and medications will help during any extended illness, injury or emergency.

A well-provisioned stockpile allows people to stay out of crowded stores during a disease outbreak and ensures supplies in the home if the public makes a panic run on stores. Even during H1N1, people were in the news complaining about store shelves emptied of hand sanitizer. What a relief for people to know they can take care of themselves without leaving home for weeks.

Health officials believe it is likely that H1N1 will return this fall. The public is familiar with the virus now and has some idea what to expect, although history indicates the virus may grow stronger and extend its reach by fall.

Families that began planning child care options if schools close and work sites don’t need to finish and test those plans. Like emergency stockpiles, good plans are a relief in a crisis and can prevent haphazard panic choices.

H1N1 taught many people to protect themselves and others by washing their hands more often and making certain they cover their coughs and sneezes. People who turn those behaviors into lifelong habits will help protect themselves and their families from any number of illnesses.

H1N1 pointed the Inland Northwest to the tools it needs to help survive a potentially life-changing emergency. Now we have to put those tools to work.

Cynthia Taggart, a former Spokesman-Review staff writer, is public information officer for the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho.


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