Plague, Pandemic Influenza, Avian Flu or Media Event? by Allen Weiss, MD, CEO & President

Dr. ALlen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR

by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
CEO & President, NCH Healthcare System

October 16, 2006 - We are living in a global community where anything is possible. As a result of the internet communication, transportation, transparency (knowing information quickly), scientific knowledge, as well as medical prevention and treatment have never been better or more accessible. That is the good news. Now the troublesome news—we still cannot predict with any certainty which diseases will spread through which areas of the world, or when, or even if, they will ever appear.

In her book “The Coming Plague—Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” author Laurie Garrett reviews the swine flu debacle and Legionnaires’ Disease. In both cases, the American public was led to believe that something was coming which was not good. The federal government and health officials were frantic, the public apprehension demanded attention, and significant sums of money were spent on investigation, understanding, and attempts to treat or prevent the diseases. In the case of swine flu many more people were hurt by the treatment than by the disease itself. Legionnaires’ Disease was eventually linked to bacteria which were able to grow in air conditioning water cooling towers. Once the epidemiologists and scientists of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) unraveled the mystery of Legionnaires’ Disease, this bacteria was isolated and expunged from areas where it could continue to harm people. The Legionnaires’ story is a perfect example of how the public health service can fulfill its mission and protect the community.

Today there is a tremendous amount of news and literature concerning threats of avian and pandemic flu. Combined with these facts are many opinions. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but not to their own “facts”. Many are comparing avian flu with the pandemic of 1918-19. However, thus far person to person spread of avian flu has not been proven, according to an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in the January 27, 2005 issue. According to author Garrett, researchers speculate that the dreaded virulence, rampant spread, and quick die-offs of the 1918-19 pandemic flu was due to environmental factors such as World War I trench warfare conditions, overcrowded military encampments, and movements of hundreds of thousands of troops in jam-packed ships, submarines, and train cars all over the world.

Time will tell whether or not there is a valid world wide threat from avian or pandemic flu. In the meantime, what can we do while we are waiting, watching and following the media? Three simple behaviors right now can help to keep you and your community healthy:

Number one: WASH YOUR HANDS. Statistics show that only about 80% of people leaving a public bathroom have washed their hands. Hand-washing will improve the chances of keeping you and everyone around you well.

Number two: GET A FLU SHOT. Only about one third of those who should have a flu shot actually get one. It is safe and effective and you can avoid the possibility of having to spend a few days or more in bed. Although a vaccine has not yet been developed for an avian or pandemic flu strain, availing yourself of the current seasonal flu vaccine can strengthen your immune system and reduce risks.

Number three: COVER YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU COUGH and be careful of social kissing when people are not well. Although it may be customary to touch cheeks when greeting family and friends, one should be careful during flu season.

Medical science has come a long way but we still have much to discover. In the meantime, stay well and follow the above three behaviors which will give you more protection than almost anything else you can do.

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.