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When Germs Go Wild

Few things strike alarm in the hearts of people, especially parents, like news reports of infectious diseases spreading through the population. Words like "outbreak," "epidemic," and "pandemic" can spread panic even faster than the diseases themselves can travel. First of all, let’s examine what those scary words mean.

"Outbreak" refers to an unexpected occurrence of a disease in a localized area, such as "a sudden outbreak of measles in a school district."

"Epidemic" occurs when the number of new cases of a disease substantially exceeds what was expected, such as "A flu epidemic is spreading throughout New York City, forcing the public schools to close for a week in an effort to control the spread among school-age children and their families."

"Pandemic" refers to a widespread epidemic of an infectious disease that spreads rapidly through large regions of human inhabitation. "Pan" actually means "all." A pandemic exists when 75% of the population of a large area is affected.

Pandemic and epidemic situations are nothing new and are actually fairly common. Think of measles, Avian (bird) flu, Swine flu, and the flu epidemic of 1918 that spread across the globe and took an estimated twenty million lives. Farther back in history, the dreaded Bubonic plague that began in China in the mid-1300’s and spread by rats and their fleas through shipping channels into Europe wiped out at least half of the European population. Is there a possibility that such pandemics could happen in our day? Yes, as unfortunate as it would be, it very well could happen. Unfamiliar germs appear resistant to our antibiotics. Viruses routinely mutate. How can we prepare for such possibilities?

Whether the disease outbreak is local or widespread we can do things to protect ourselves and our families. Most of the precautions we can take are simply a matter of good common sense.

Have supplies of antibacterial products--sprays, hand sanitizer, liquids, wipes, and soaps on hand and use them liberally. Spray or wipe common germ-spreading culprits (at home and at work) such as phones, keyboards, computer mouses, doorknobs, faucets, toilet handles, handles on shopping carts--anything that everyone touches on a routine basis.

Be prepared to stay home (and possibly indoors) for up to ten days or longer. Follow whatever the local health authorities recommend. Avoid going out in public, especially into crowded places. Those of us who are old enough to remember the polio epidemics that used to occur almost every summer of our childhood recall the closed movie theaters, restaurants and swimming pools. We learned to entertain ourselves at home. If you have children it’s a good idea to have on hand a variety of books, craft ideas, board or video games, movies, and toys that can be wiped clean if they’re shared. The possibility of needing to stay home for an extended period is also a very good reason to have on hand at least a three-month supply of familiar food as well as a gallon a day per person of clean water for a two week period and ways to make water safe to drink. Many pathogens can be spread through the water supply.

Stores, banks, schools, restaurants and public services may need to close. You may be forced to make do with what you have on hand. Even utilities, garbage pick-up, and mail delivery may be spotty or on hold. One man recalled a time in his hometown in Oklahoma when yellow fever raged and people stayed inside their homes. One brave man in their community was designated to deliver sacks of groceries to people’s front doors--but never to have any contact with his customers--and every night a dray wagon went around picking up the bodies of those who had died. This was the only activity in town for several weeks. It’s hard for us to imagine things coming to such a pass in our medically-sophisticated and enlightened day, but it’s possible. Even if grocery stores and restaurants remained open, wouldn’t you feel safer preparing your own food at home during such a time?

If you must go out to work or to a hospital or doctor’s office, wear masks (consider N95 masks, which have exhalation valves for easy breathing and speaking). Refrain from shaking hands with people. If you work in essential services, such as the medical field, it may be wiser for you to remain at work for the duration rather than risk infecting your family by going back and forth. Of course if there’s no one to care for your children in your absence that’s another matter. Take extreme precautions, showering and changing clothes before going home.

Keep a good first-aid kit on hand and know how to use it. Plan if possible to have an extra supply of regular prescription medications.

Supervise your children’s hand washing. Make sure they wash for three minutes including under their fingernails, especially if they’ve been out in public. Wash any fresh fruits and vegetables carefully before preparing them even if they appear perfectly clean. Eat as healthy a diet as possible, get plenty of sleep, and try to keep up your emotional well being and the mood of your family, as disturbances in ordinary routine can be stressful for everyone.

Don’t forget Bowser, Meowser, and Nemo--your pets will continue to need food and supplies just as you will. Try to keep them clean and cared for so that they stay healthy. Not being prepared to feed and care for them would add stress to the whole family.

For further information, visit www.fema.gov, www.redcross.org, and www.beprepared.com/Insight.
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