Monday, April 27, 2009

Thoughts on swine, pandemics, and parenthood

Not surprised Doctors are sounding the alarm, global pandemic is considered by many to be the greatest threat to human security on the planet. Notably the UK:

An illustration of the major risks in the report suggests that electronic attacks on computer or communication systems and terrorist attacks are among the most likely threats, but would not have the widespread impact of a flu pandemic.

The Big One uses as its point of reference the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-20, the pandemic equivalent (along with the more ghoulish but also distant spectre of the Bubonic Plague) of World War II. This is not irrational, and despite the advances in microbiology, general health and nutrition since the harsh years following the Great War there is no reason to think it couldn't happen again.

That flu had a (morbidly) fascinating effect of primarily hitting those we would expect to have the most resistance: young adults. Apparently this was due to causing an over-reaction in immune systems, so the stronger the immune system the more damage the disease caused- a cytokine storm.

The last I read about it Australian governments had bought out large stockplies of drugs and related flu management equipment, but this is earmarked for 'essential services' rather than widespread vaccination of the general populace. What the rest of us could hope to do is probably to make the call early enough and stay home, or run for the hills. Stockpiling, as much as it is reminiscent of cellars full of provisions for nuclear war, probably makes sense:

But Woolworths and Coles, the nation's two major supermarket chains, will run out of stock within two to four weeks without a supply chain – or even faster if shoppers panic.

This has prompted a team of leading nutritionists and dietitians from the University of Sydney to compile "food lifeboat" guidelines to cover people's nutritional needs for at least 10 weeks. Their advice – published in the Medical Journal of Australia – would allow citizens to stay inside their homes and avoid contact with infected people until a vaccine becomes available.

The lifeboat includes affordable long-life staples such as rice, biscuits, milk powder, Vegemite, canned tuna, chocolate, lentils, Milo and Weet-Bix...

We will likely be victims of our own society, the primacy of work and the difficulty we would cause for ourselves, and those who work with and rely on us, if each time a pandemic threatened we stayed home from the outset and battened down the hatches for a week.

If in doubt I have told Beloved I would like her to retreat to the family farm, up in the foothills of the Snowys, with the kids, before the rush, in that awful grey zone where the likelihood of a biological holocaust is becoming realistic, but the impact is not yet visceral enough to allow me, most of us worker drones, to lose the guilt and flee from our workstations.

Take me. Do not take my children.

UPDATE: a literary analogy that came to me while commenting at LP:

The awful quandrary could be likened to that of the townspeople in Everything Is Illuminated, hearing of the approaching SS and the tales of what was happening to Jews but, in most cases, unable to make such a stark call as to pack up their things and flee, until it was too late.

UPDATE II: Roxon reassures, we have almost 9 million doses of antiviral stockpiled. This must be reassuring for the mathematically ungifted.

UPDATE III: Rather less than amusing in Mexico.

UPDATE IV: Heightened risk of pandemic, says WHO.

Others: Robert at LP hopes we dodge the bullet. Bullet? So much worse.


Mark Lawrence said...

Good post, Armagnac. I often wonder, though, to what extent we worry, fret and then panic about such outbreaks - after all, there was SARS in all its glory before this, and it was geographically closer to Aust than this North American ground zero.

Then again, the Japanese are using heating sensoring technology to pick those coming off planes with a fever … what do they know we don't?

The first news I heard of the Swine Flu was a tweet on the weekend by someone I respect - Alex Steffen of, someone not given to hysteria and highly intelligent.

He urged people not to panic, but to start stockpiling. I wondered stockpiling what against the flu? Paracetamol? Aspirin? Water? I though you can't really 'treat' flu besides keep up water and use something to manage the aches and fevers. I didn't take it too seriously when I read further and found it mainly centred in North America.

The news is getting grimmer, of course. And it's spreading. And you've answered the question of what to stockpile and why. Which goes to the other questions of whether to go to school/uni/TAFE/work.

But if we all head to the hills, who will be there to help, to hand out the face masks and bottles of water at the help-zones and at train stations?

Besides, most of us don't have a place in the country to retreat to.

I think Alex's advice still stands. Don't panic, but take it seriously and start stockpiling – but not hoarding. There is a difference.

BTW, don't forget the batteries and bottled water.

Thanks for starting to think through this for us here in Melbourne, Armagnac.

Ann ODyne said...

My first thought, on hearing this news, was on our degree of trust in government-competence, with reference to the quarantine inspector who moved from flu-infected Jap horses to other horse properties WITHOUT changing or cleaning his gumboots, causing a national nightmare for ponyclubs, RDA groups, and the 1300 people/horses who were confined at the Warwick 3-day event.

MASKS. white anti-viral masks.
Let them laugh. while they can.
and handwashing. gloves when out - it's cold, we can get away with that one.

Children are any parent's Achilles Heel. Duty of care etc.

I do wish though, that there was a national campaign urging people to carry proper handkerchiefs and use them efficiently when coughing or sneezing in public - am so sick of those who merely touch a knuckle to their nose while spraying germs in a 3m radius on a tram.

Mark Lawrence said...

Oh, and you also answered my question why it was affecting young, relatively healthy young people so badly.

JahTeh said...

Don't worry about the masks for the air, the virus lives on buttons, door handles, anything that's touched. That's how the SARS virus infected so quickly.

Th. said...


Tick tick tick.

The timing of this disease with the economic downturn and mandatory school testing (I'm in America here --- can't speak for you) is the perfect way to keep everyone holding off on decision-making until it's too late.

Or so it seems to me.

BwcaBrownie said...

today The Age quoted a nameless Government spokesperson saying
"we have the scanner to detect arrivals who have a high temperature, but we aren't using it yet"

is it me?
WHY ARE they not using it yet?

"Health experts note that face masks and respirators should be used along with other precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, covering coughs, staying at home if ill and avoiding crowds.