I’m still sniffling and coughing (mildly) as the result of a small, not very bothersome otherwise-type cold that I contracted just before Thanksgiving. There were a few nights with the cold where, according to one source, I was snoring in a manner that might have caused cattle to stampede. But that’s about as unpleasant as it got.
However it was no laughing matter in the earliest stages, where I was able to share in the national angst over swine flu. Was this it? Was I getting it? If I had contracted it, how was I going to keep my partner from getting it and if I did give it to her… would she be disheartened enough to leave me and live the rest of her life in a germ-free facility in Switzerland?
At the height of the bird flu concerns, we had just safely returned from some air travel and felt lucky that no “bugs” had harmed us during our journey. Then we blithely pursued getting a taxi at LAX and in doing so walked right through a throng of overseas passengers all wearing surgical masks and appearing very Night of the Living Dead. Of course anyone who has just completed 14-plus hours of air travel is going to take on zombie characteristics, regardless of whether you’re infected with something.
Recalling that “Stuff happens” experience, and perhaps because we both enjoy general good health, our household has been less than gripped by the H1N1 epidemic. We’re definitely washing our hands a lot, and air travel has a perceptible new level of icky-ness every time someone on the plane sneezes. But… we’re not truly afraid. Is that wrong? Are we not reacting to a real threat with a proper level of concern?
H1N1 has been cited by the Centers for Disease Control as the cause of 4,000 deaths this year in the United States, adjusting for deaths related to or instigated by contracting the flu strain. They adjusted that number up from 1,000… so even the CDC has learned to get more intense about swine flu. The number of auto fatalities in a year in the U.S. is in excess of 40,000, yet that figure seems to have no discernable impact on whether or not people get in a car and drive. So what should our attitude be about something like the swine flu?
It’s a very different mentality if you have children. The CDC reports that flu in general kills between 46 and 88 children a year and that so far swine flu has claimed 76 children. Specifically, the CDC said in October that there were 76 children’s deaths just since April, indicating a pandemic. Would I keep my child home if I rationally felt there was a threat of infection at his or her school? How long would I do that? Until it was “safe” to mingle with the other children again? Doesn’t any gathering of children come with some level of risk that something will be passed?
Despite the seeming increase in “germophobic” behaviors, I don’t know that we’ve been completely turned around by these flu epidemics. We’re getting almost regular reports of food processing errors that cause massive recalls, yet most people would be fine taking their chances with something like a “Dodger Dog” at a baseball game. Walk into Whole Foods and some likeable person will approach you with a tray full of free sample bites of their new gluten-free Hummus Doodles. Do you even think twice before popping one in your mouth? Is that okay because it says “Whole Foods” in earthy green paint on the front of the building?
Last week we had a few people over for dinner and I grilled some fish. I turned the just- seared fillets over to my partner, who proceeded to test the done-ness of the fish… by poking each fillet with her finger. Someone remarked on the less-than-sterile nature of the procedure with a joke… then we all sat down and ate some delicious finger-tested fish. Let me add that no one at the party was wearing a medical mask or sneezing or sniffling. Still…
Spend some time with the Discovery TV channel and you’re bound to view one of those videos revealing how they make candy bars or cookies or even tofu in massive amounts for markets all over America. You’ll see big machines with rubber conveyor belts and all kinds of fascinating cutting and stirring and packaging contraptions. Then, every few minutes or so, some dude in a hair net walks by and pulls on a lever or adjusts the creamy nougat injector. And for a moment you wonder, “Was that guy wearing gloves? Is that fellow feeling all right today? He looked like he had a cold… or something…” And now you’re off Snickers bars for the next two weeks until the uneasy feeling passes.
How worried should we be? How much preventative action is enough? Must we get the flu shot? During the fairy tale ramp-up to the oil war in Iraq, we were dazzled and distracted with fabricated accounts of biological weapons. I distinctly remember a short-lived period in which I had weird fevered dreams about plagues in which Saddam Hussein and Dick Cheney were sneezing into beer bottles at a Budweiser plant. But I would awake from those convinced that I had to get my paranoia in line. There are bad things randomly floating around us, ready to work their way into our bodies and keep us from living life to the fullest. But one of those is fear itself.