Mask mania: Locals prepare for swine flu
Forget the economy, forget Iraq, forget gay marriage or any other hot news topics. For the last several weeks, swine flu has been the headline hog–- especially with up to three cases reported in Virginia. Even as the latest reports from health organizations suggest the bug, now known by the pork industry-favored moniker H1N1, may actually be less virulent than basic seasonal flu, masks are "totally sold out," says Meadowbrook Pharmacy pharmacist Janet Chrismore.
"It's been nuts," says Chrismore, noting that reports suggest the masks aren't particularly effective protection against viruses, so those who are unable to acquire them shouldn't be concerned. Indeed, according to the CDC, the masks are most useful at preventing someone already infected with swine flu from spreading the virus through the community– not the other way around.
That message doesn't seem to have reached customers of several other local pharmacies, which report a booming mask business.
At CVS pharmacy on the Downtown Mall, the masks were gone by April 30, according to a store employee. And a few blocks east, masks were selling briskly at Timberlake Drugs, although the store still had some in stock as of May 4, according to pharmacist and owner John Plantz. Once that supply is exhausted, Plantz says, he doesn't know when the next batch will arrive.
Unlike Chrismore, whose globe-hopping clientele is increasing the flow of prescriptions for antiviral medications including Tamiflu and Relenza, Plantz says he hasn't witnessed such reaction.
"We seem to have a stable, well-read clientele," says Plantz. " No one's jumping off the deep end."
Even those who might be inclined to overreact will have a tough time convincing their physicians to prophylactically prescribe such drugs, says James Aller, an internal medicine doctor. Stockpiles of the drug, he says, need to be maintained for emergencies, so he says he has written only two such prescriptions in the wake of the swine flu outbreak and only for people preparing to travel internationally, where access to medical care might be difficult.
"One was going to Mexico, the other to China," says Aller. "They couldn't change trips."
Should people still be worried? According to Dr. Lilian Peake, district health director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, it's too soon to say.
"Right now, there's not enough information," says Peake, who says the one Central Virginia case was not in our health district, which covers Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson counties. She notes that epidemiologists from the CDC have been sent to Mexico to work with Mexican public health officials to determine the actual number of cases and to further study the origins of the virus.
At presstime, public health officials were cautiously optimistic that the virus is not as deadly as initially feared, but were still urging caution. As of May 4, according to the World Health Organization, 20 countries had reported 985 confirmed cases of the virus. The majority of the laboratory-confirmed cases are in Mexico, where there had been 590 cases and 25 deaths. The U.S. is second, with 225 cases and one death– a Mexican baby visiting Texas.
Even if the swine flu proves to be weak, tracking new cases remains a priority since the virus could mutate resulting in a more menacing strain.
Such was the case in 1918 when an initial mild outbreak of a similar H1N1 flu strain was followed in the fall by a mutated version of the virus that killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide, according to WHO.
While seasonal flu is most dangerous for those with weakened immune systems and causes as many as 36,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC, the 1918 flu was most deadly to those between 20 and 40. Death resulted not directly from the virus but from an overly powerful immune response that killed lung cells and, in effect, caused sufferers to drown in their own secretions– sometimes just hours after the onset of illness.
Preventing a similar pandemic is why doctors have taken the latest swine flu so seriously and why massive resources are being spent to study the virus.
"It's better," says Peake, "to be safe than sorry."