Friday, August 28, 2009

H1N1, Fear, and the Need for Calm Vigilance

As the public health infrastructure gears up for the coming flu season and the potential resurgence of H1N1 from its summer lassitude, those of us on the front lines of that infrastructure are left with many questions.

First, as we await the first shipments of seasonal flu vaccine (which should begin arriving soon), we are faced with questions from the public about whether they are eligible for the seasonal flu vaccine, whether or not they will be able to receive the H1N1 vaccine, and how they might protect themselves against these strains of flu that threaten to sicken and perhaps kill thousands of people. We are also faced with the public relations nightmare of explaining the different criteria for the two vaccines, based on the fact that younger people are more susceptible to H1N1 infection, whereas the elderly more often succumb to seasonal flu. While there is some overlap between groups susceptible to both illnesses, a great deal of education will need to be done in order to allay fears and identify who will receive vaccinations.

Next, there are fears that schools, municipal offices, police and fire departments, hospitals and other critical services may be seriously curtailed or shut down if large numbers of employees become sickened with a virulent form of the flu. Just the other day, I attended a meeting with a number of local school officials, and weighty issues of great import were discussed at length as the group wrestled with contingency plans that may or may not come to fruition.

It is the fear of the unknown that drives the anxiety surrounding H1N1, and the potential for widespread illness and death does indeed stoke the fires of the media machine and the conspiracy theorists alike. For me, on the front lines of local public health, my job is to allay citizens' fears, prepare for a double-pronged mass vaccination campaign (for seasonal flu and H1N1), and meet with local officials and others in order to answer questions and suggest ways for citizens to be healthy and maintain a calm but alert vigilance.

This will be an interesting flu season, without a doubt, and it will only be hindsight that will inform us whether our preparations were thoughtful, wasteful, alarmist, or simply prudent.

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