Friday, June 05, 2009

Confessions of a disease vector

Like many other Greater Victorians, I caught a bug recently and am sick this week.
I doubt it’s the infamous “swine flu,” seeing as any number of more common colds and flus are hanging around out there right now. But for a moment let’s pretend that it is, if only for the purposes of demonstrating that there isn’t a sniff of hope in these modern times for containing the spread of new viruses.
The new H1N1 flu is contagious 24 hours before you show any symptoms and for at least seven days after you get sick, as are all flu viruses. That means I was contagious as of last Saturday.
That was the day I was shopping in Seattle with my daughter and stepdaughter. We were jammed into the basement of Nordstrom Rack with at least a thousand other women over the course of the afternoon. I can’t imagine how many articles of clothing I handled that day - how many hangers I jostled, changing-room doors I pushed open, people I brushed up against while engaging in the intense contact sport of discount shopping.
That night, I went to a packed restaurant full of Saturday-night revellers and beautiful young people in prom clothes, out celebrating their high-school grad. I hugged a friend from Seattle who had joined us for dinner, and we all shared an appetizer that involved us breaking off pieces of flatbread and dipping it in a single dish of melted cheese. I spent the night in a very small hotel room with my daughters, both of whom were already sick with some cold-like illness.
On Sunday, my stepdaughter flew back home to England, taking whatever bug she had - and perhaps mine, too - onto two planes, through three airports, and aboard a train ride to Exeter. My other daughter and I spent the morning weaving through throngs of tourists and locals packed into Pike Street Market, then went on to more discount shopping at the bustling outlet mall near the Tulalip Casino.
My credit card passed from me to a store clerk and back again any number of times over the weekend. I shared pens, passed along my passport at the border, handled a whole lot of merchandise in a whole lot of stores. I took a busy BC Ferry back to Victoria on Sunday night.
You get the picture: I shared public space with large numbers of people before I even knew I was sick. I know now, of course, which should mean I’ll take steps to avoid infecting anyone from this point on. But here we stumble into another unworkable theory for flu management: That people will stay home for seven days after the onset of symptoms to prevent the spread of the virus.
Are there people who can just close up their lives for seven days due to possibly having the flu? I know I can’t.
For one thing, I’m self-employed, which means no paid sick time. But even when I did have that fringe benefit, there was no way I would have stayed home for seven days straight just because I thought I had the flu. The truth is that people work through sickness all the time, and the modern workplace depends on it.
On the bright side, I work at home, sans co-workers. But I’ve got two contracts hitting deadlines over the next two weeks, and they require me to get out there and meet with people, flu or no flu. My plan: A couple Dayquils when needed and onward into my regular life, albeit with a bit more attention to hand-washing and avoiding close spaces.
The flu experts want me to wear a mask if I have to go out in public. Maybe I’d consider that if knew absolutely that I had some virulent flu strain and not just a garden-variety cold.
But therein lies the other difficult aspect of controlling the spread of influenza: How often do any of us actually know that we even have a confirmed case of the flu? It’s my opinion that I’ve had the flu many times in my lifetime, but I’ve never gone for a blood test to confirm any of it. Health officials anticipate confirming as few as five per cent of the H1N1 cases currently spreading around the world.
A pandemic strategy is a good thing, of course, and I’m glad for all the stockpiled Tamiflu and scientists working away on new vaccines. But best practice and human habits are leagues apart when it comes to spreading the flu. Eat your veggies and hope for the best, because avoiding each other simply isn’t an option.

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