by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
April 14, 2009
DON'T DRINK THE WATER; DON'T BREATHE THE AIR
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- During most of my adult life, the flu was considered an inconvenience - usually 24 hours of an upset stomach, throwing up, and perhaps a fever.
It was usually assumed to be viral, but if the patient's throat were sore, it would be swabbed for a culture to determine if the illness were bacterial, thus requiring an antibiotic to promote the cure. After swabbing, the doctor might suggest starting on the antibiotic, anyway. If negative for bacteria, stop the antibiotic - a viral infection won't respond to antibiotics.
That is all I knew about the flu, but my family found it expedient to listen to suggestions we get annual flu shots. I felt it was worth it to avoid unpredictable episodes of a 24-hour flu bug - Asian or otherwise - that could plague us at just the wrong time.
So, in my lifetime, the flu was an inconvience at best and incapacitating at its worst. Not so in my mother's lifetime. Although I was born in the 1930's, I was one of nine children, and one of them, my brother Paul, was born during the deadly pandemic known as "The Influenza Epidemic of 1918."
That year, my parents were visiting their families in Montreal. The flu broke out, Mama got sick and was hospitalized; Paul was born, weighed 5 pounds and was not expected to live.
Both survived, although even the hospital staff was coming down with the deadly flu themselves. This epidemic covered one fifth of the world and took the lives of 50 million people - more than any other illness in recorded history. For the purpose of comparison, 16 million lives were claimed during World War I, which ended that same year.
We spoke of the flu in hushed tones in our house, as if speaking about it could invite it back into our lives. Instead, we concentrated on things we knew about. We knew about polio - poliomyelitis, a debilitating virus that keeps young muyscles from developing properly - since it was all around us. Young children in school would have one leg pencil thin and the other normal, or one arm 10 inches shorter than the other.
Polio was a disease that could cause death within hours, and all we knew in my childhood was the way it was transmitted: the virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies through the intestines. So we were sure we didn't have any dental work done in the summer months or go to the beach where crowds assembled.
With polio, when the bacteria hits the breathing apparatus, paralysis prevents breathing. Patients were put into what we called "iron lungs," a cylinder in which the patient lie diwn at full length while the "lung" did the breathing, with the patient's head the only part outside the big iron tube. Naturally, panic would arise during a power outtage.
We also were no strangers to diphtheria, something today's parents only know as the D in a DPT shot. The P is for pertussis, or whooping cough. I had that when I was 11 and it carried on for five months of bed rest and left me with a life-long love of comic books. The T is for tetanus, something parents do understand since the shot for it hass been in use since 1924.
And now we are faced with the possibility of the spread of the swine flu. On Promedmail, a very useful and little-known Intenet mailing list of epidemiologists and others on watch around the world, the real experts point out that no pig has ever been diagnosed with this strain of the flu named after them. It's really a combination of swine flu, bird flu and human flu, and in the first two, there are at least three different U.S., European and Asian varieties at work.
For that reason, a lot of folks in the bug business don't like the name at all. And reading some of the posts on Promedmail, maybe it "swine flu" really doesn't fit. Here's "an undiagnosed respiratory illness" from April 25 that sounds like what Mexico's got (but they say it isn't):
Over 100 students at a primary school in Liquan County have caught colds [alternative translation is "influenza" - Rappt.DS] and the school has been closed for 4 days. Education, public health, and disease control agencies are jointly investigating.
Recommendations that we listen carefully to the government's Health and Human Services Division are not always heard. We hear of eight deaths in Mexico and many sick kids cured at a private school in New York City, where eight of the victims were recently on a spring break trip to Mexico, and we listen but often don't connect with the afflicted.
We see the precautions in those particular cities and understand their high degree of concern. We appreciate the sophisticated means of tracking both the spread of the disease and the sources of contact and we hear their advice. Because of the school in New York, we know that face-to-face contact is a way to spread the virus as well having had contact with a pig, if one is ever found that has it.
We will be diligent about personal hygiene - especially washing our hands. (I wonder if those handing us that advice are aware of a report two or three weeks ago claiming "antibacterial soaps are creating super bacteria and use stronger chemicals. True, some bacteria are harmful and can cause disease. But some are helpful and healthful and we are killing those off, too.")
In 1949, there was a smallpox scare in New York City. We lined up around the block when the Health Department in Queens issued vaccinations - in spite of proof we had been vaccinated before entering school, in my case in the late '30s. We all had the tell-tale scar on our left shoulders but precaution ruled.
Because we know it happened before, we prepare for it happening again. Yet, foolishly, we don't always heed the experts. My mother lost friends to pneumonia, their children to polio, their parents lost limbs though diabetes induced ulcers. They had no options; treat the symptoms was the extent of medical advice from frustrated doctors making house calls.
The indefatigable scientists made breakthroughs in the areas of their specialties and correct treatments were brought to us. Vaccines were made available to prevent occurrences and when voluntary compliance was not forthcoming, mandatory conformity became a requirement for entering school or planning to travel.
We don't know if the swine flu will reach pandemic proportions, but we should be aware that it can - and very easily, too. Each succeeding thing we experience teaches us that what has happened can happen again.
But this I have seen for myself: Polio has been eradicated. No more friends with shriveled legs are hobbling into the classroom. I was there; I saw them. Until the 1950s, polio was rampant in industrialized countries and killed thousands every year.
But in the early '60s I was on line with two of my babies to take a small sugar cube with a drop of anti-polio vaccine laced into it. No problem getting the children to take Jonas Sal's life-giving oral vaccine, available for the first time.
And so, I was there then, too. And still, I hear there are those who don't believe in vaccines. That confuses me. Do they trust to dumb luck, or is the old axiom, "Seeing is believing," more true?