Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu: Stocking Up On Soup, Just In Case

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the new human swine flu that everyone has been talking—and sometimes obsessing—about. US government officials keep telling us to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Here’s how I am taking that advice. At this point in time, I think it’s reasonable to stock up on canned soup, soap, hand sanitizer and Kleenex—which I have done. I plan to take a train this weekend. If I had to travel further, I would not hesitate to take an airplane. That could change tomorrow or next week. But for me, that’s reasonable for today.

Just finished talking with Lisa Mullins of PRI/WGBH/BBC’s The World. The other guest was Peter Sandman, a risk communications consultant who has been talking about preparing for pandemic flu for several years now. You can hear our segment on the radio at 3 PM on WNYCAM, which is 820 AM in New York. Here's the link to the podcast of the program.

I keep hoping, perhaps vainly, that adults ought to be able to sort through contradictory pieces of information at the same time. Yes, there is reason to be concerned about the new human swine flu. Even if it fizzles out in the next few days to weeks, there is still reason to be concerned. It’s not a bad idea to check your pantry and stock up on a few things that might have gotten low—in case you need to shelter in place. As anyone who has ever been in a hurricane knows, the time to buy extra diapers is not when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the storm is going to hit your area in 24 hours. No, it does not make sense to close down the border between Mexico and the US.

Having extra food around the house or gas in the car are easy precautions to take now. There is not enough space in my tiny apartment for a two-week supply of stuff but we have seven days worth to cover my partner and myself. I’m also collecting a few phone numbers from my neighbors and have posted New York City’s flu hotline number (1-800-808-1987) in my kitchen. I have also noticed that I am not shaking people’s hands as much.

It helps to keep a sense of humor. I bought a box of crackers—one of my favorite things to eat whether sick or not—and marked it “IN CASE OF FLU.” I have a tendency to go overboard on crackers and don’t need the extra calories—unless I really am sick.

And after that, it’s kind of a waiting game—to see what will develop.

People who know me well say that I sometimes try too hard to fix things. Curiously, with reports of the new human swine flu, I have adopted a more fatalistic approach. No, I’m not throwing my hands up and doing nothing. I AM taking some precautions (outlined above). I may change my actions in the future. But I do NOT believe that I can 100% guarantee that I or my loved ones won’t get sick if a severe pandemic emerges. Flu is much too contagious for that.

The die is already cast as to whether this particular flu strain goes pandemic and how much illness and death it might cause. We will know soon enough.

For more information on preparing for a possible pandemic, you can go through the checklists at

Related post: Swine Flu: Getting the Facts Right


Christine Gorman said...

Let's just stipulate, for now, that the new flu is going to show up in most countries of the world. Much as we would all like to know what that is going to mean now, it is going to take time to figure it out.

Acronyms and Anarchy said...

I keep thinking about John Barry's book on the Spanish Flu - have you read it? It's making my imagination a little overactive (particularly with the cold I just caught). We humans must have a hard wired fear of the destructive power of viruses - some of the most sensible people I know are already stocking up on Tamiflu.

csumler said...

I heard your comments and Mr. Sandman's on the show tonight. Is the water supply in danger of being infected? He kept saying that we have to buy bottled water.

Christine Gorman said...

No, the water supply is not in danger of being infected.

Sandman is referring to a truly worst-scenario of truck drivers coming down with flu and not being able to deliver any chlorine to water-treatment plants or of so many water-treatment plant workers getting sick and absent from work that the water supply might be affected.

Christine Gorman said...

To: A and A
Re: John Barry's book and 1918

I have a copy myself. Great read. But still, as flu researchers like to say, "If you've seen one flu pandemic, you've seen one flu pandemic."

We don't know what will happen with this one. Even if it turns out mild, it could roar back in the fall.

As I keep saying, we are adults here. We can deal with contradictory information.

Anonymous said...

It seems like a real discussion of the case-fatality rate has been absent from a the media's coverage. I agree-- it's good to prep for an emergency. But I'm not sure that this one is going to kill the people that have the financial flexibility to buy stockpiles of creamed corn and minestrone. It just seems like more seniors have died of osteoporosis in Florida during the time it has taken me to write this comment that the total amount of deaths that we will see attributed to "The Pig Cold." But either way, I need to know soon as I'm getting really bored here in my bubble house, reading 'The Masque of the Red Death.'

Christine Gorman said...

Actually, trying to get at case-fatality rates have come up in a number of media reports. You just have to know where to look and what terms are used for a lay audience.

For example, the question "Why has Mexico had so many deaths when others have not?" is actually a crude case-fatality question.

More sophisticated, perhaps is the "denominator" question asked by Laurie Garrett and others. If 100 deaths is the numerator (top half of the fraction), then what is the denominator (bottom number)? If it's 1,000 infected people, that's bad. If it's 1,000,000 infected people, that's still bad for the 100 who died but less of a worry for the world and an example of a lower case-fatality ratio.

Anonymous said...

I was impressed with how quickly the global health community and political leaders worldwide responded to combat the swine flu virus sweeping the globe.

That has me wondering, though, why an equally devastating illness continues to receive comparatively little attention: diarrheal diseases, which kill approximately 2 million children under the age of five in developing countries each and every year. Read more of my thoughts at HuffPo

Christine Gorman said...


This sort of me-too-ism, while understandable, is unhelpful. It has more to do with the requirements of advocacy than tackling larger systemic issues.

The human swine flu outbreak merited intense news coverage because it could potentially have affected all humanity.

Diarrheal disease, along with lower respiratory infections (dangerous things like pneumonia, flu) primarily affect poorer countries.

We absolutely need, as a planet, to do more to deal with the health of the poorest of the poor.

But wouldn't we all be better off if global health advocates worked with each other on systemic issues rather than pushing siloed, stove-piped causes?

By taking that approach, you are, I am afraid, actually reinforcing a mentality of scarcity rather than one that is based on what is right.

Unknown said...

After this weekedn's ICAAC meeting, the swine flu story leaves a question begging to be answered: If IV peramivir is effective in the ICU and has been shown to be safe in Phase I and II trials in the US, and Phase I, II and III trials in Japan, why has the FDA dragged its heels issuing an Emergency Use Authorization, and why have children suffocated to death in the ICU as a result? What Hurricance Katrina was to FEMA, this delayed EUA is to the FDA. It's a huge story; please break it.