Swine Flu Lessons Learned: Was All This Really Necessary?


Joel Keehn, senior editor of Consumer Reports, provides the following op-ed commentary:

Now that the worst may be over in Mexico and the swine (H1N1) flu virus doesn't seem to be much more contagious than seasonal flu, some folks—such as Jack Cafferty on CNN—are wondering if all the hoopla was warranted. Did they really need to shut down schools, distribute masks, and tell everyone to zealously wash their hands? The short answer: Yes. In fact, those and other measures may well have nipped the crisis in the bud.

Yes, there were some examples of people and governments going a step—or two—too far. There’s little reason, for example, for the Chinese government to have quarantined Mexican tourists in their hotel rooms, or for the Egyptian government to have ordered the slaughter all of the country’s hogs. But overall, our medical consultants say that the public-health response seems to be have been on target.

“The last two weeks should be seen as a public-health success story, not an example of fear mongering,” says John Santa, MD, MPH, director of the Consumer Reports Health Treatment Ratings Center.

Indeed, many of the measures recommended over the past two weeks by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were backed up by considerable scientific research—and should be kept in mind when the next new flu bug emerges and starts to make the global rounds. For example, a review published by the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration on Oct. 17, 2007 concluded that the single most effective step against the spread of flu is “hygienic measures around younger children.” In other words, washing your hands when you’re around kids. That’s because kids tend to have longer-lived infections and to interact with a lot of people over the course of the day—and to be pretty bad at washing their own hands.

When the flu becomes widespread in a well-defined community—such as a school, nursing home, hospital, or, as in the case with Mexico, an entire country—other more aggressive measures may also be necessary. For example, a study published in the Nov. 27, 2007, issue of the British Medical Journal said that in such circumstances “isolation of potentially infected patients” makes sense, hence the recommendation to close schools or businesses in communities where the infection is widespread. The same study also ranked the effectiveness of several other measures:

Flu-Prevention Strategy

Number of people needed to adopt the practice to prevent one case of the flu:

-- Wearing a mask rated N95: 3

-- Washing hands more than 10 times a day: 4

-- Wearing a gown: 5

-- Wearing any mask: 6

-- Wearing gloves: 7

“In general, when the number needed to treat is four or under, the intervention is worthwhile for general use,” says Santa. “And while wearing the right kind of mask scored highest, the simplicity and affordability of hand washing makes it the preventive measure of choice.”



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