Dallas, TX –
A cop I once knew used to joke, "What's the difference between a homicide and an aggravated assault?"
"About this much," he'd answer, holding up his thumb and index finger, a half-inch apart.
In other words, only dumb luck left one victim injured and another dead.
So it goes for the recent swine flu outbreak. The H1N1 virus caused significant hardships for some people and communities, and a small number of deaths. Had the virus been more virulent, meaning most infected people became severely ill, or resistant to all anti-flu medications, the outcome might have been different. As it was, this flu was a flesh wound, not a fatal shot.
We might not get so lucky next time. Viruses are strange and diabolical micro-organisms. They're neither living nor inert - they're just minute packages of genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. They must invade a living plant or animal cell to reproduce. Viruses change and adapt much faster than we do, which is why public health experts are watching intently to see how H1N1 behaves as it spreads.
Americans are fortunate to have a chance to assess how we reacted to a novel influenza virus this spring before the next flu season arrives this winter. The best one-word description of our response? Inconsistent.
There were low points, such as when local Congressman Michael Burgess - make that Doctor Michael Burgess -- wanted to close the border with Mexico. H1N1 appears to have originated in Mexico, but it already was widespread on our side of the border at the time. His demand made for good politics but bad medicine.
The Fort Worth Independent School District probably made a bad call too, by closing every campus when only a few kids were sick. It's forgivable: young children share germs far more readily than they share toys and district officials had no idea what they were dealing with.
But the decision had major repercussions for district families. Students were supposed to stay home, but not all working parents could take paid sick leave to care for them. Some kids inevitably ended up congregating in public places. Some kids also may have gone hungry. Two-thirds of Fort Worth's public school students are economically disadvantaged, and thousands of them depend on eating a free lunch or breakfast at school. What happened to them? Dallas and Richardson school leaders were more conservative, and only closed campuses with confirmed or probable infections. That turned out to be the right response.
The list of consequences goes on and on. Some people ordered anti-viral drugs online when they hadn't seen a doctor and weren't even sick. Taking antibiotics and anti-virals, unnecessarily can help microorganisms become resistant to those medications. And that raises the risk for everyone.
The lesson from the recent outbreak is the need for restraint and common sense - from politicians, the media, and the public. We need to think more about alternative childcare for working parents, and find ways to get food to kids who may go hungry when not in school. We should investing more in ongoing public information campaigns about infectious disease and hygiene. Then, if the next flu virus is more deadly than this last one, we'll be better prepared.
Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.
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