Thursday, March 16, 2006


Who uses it: Epidemiologists
What it means: A worldwide or nationwide outbreak of an infectious disease.
How you can use it: Wash your hands.

My friend Dan lives on a small farm in the west of England, and lost his chickens to a marauding fox last year. ("Losing one's chickens" sounds like a euphemism for something much worse, doesn't it?) The other day I asked whether he'd be getting more, now that spring is here.

He said he was going to wait until the outbreak of avian flu had passed -- which startled me, because I hadn't given any thought to avian flu since shrugging off the press hysteria last fall.

But yesterday, the federal banking agencies sent out their own Interagency Advisory on Influenza Pandemic Preparedness, part of a nationwide federal initiative to make people aware of the possibility of a flu outbreak, and take appropriate steps.

Curious, I clicked through a few links, and managed to scare myself silly. The federal government's set up an elaborate website at, with checklists to tell people what to do to prevent infection and keep from spreading the flu if they get sick.

It all boils down to three things: 1) Wash your hands a lot. 2) Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. 3) Stay home if you're sick, and stay away from sick people if you're not. The website also provides a list of things people should have on hand for an extended stay at home, but they're things we should all have on hand anyway: canned goods, extra pet food, batteries, etc.

I've been interested in the history of the Spanish flu outbreak in Maine, because the second wave of the pandemic in the United States started in Boston. It's been hard to find contemporary local accounts, because everything simply shut down during the epidemic, and government officials didn't want to panic people by releasing too much information.

Looking at yesterday, I wondered whether we have the opposite problem now: with so much information available, it's hard to know what really needs our attention.


Running from my House said...

"fle" by Gina Kolato (or something like that) was a great history of the spanish flu. I'm addicted to reading things about the flu, plague, ebola etc...

AnswerGirl said...

Gina Kolata is the author... I thought FLU was great, too. I want to read John Barry's THE GREAT INFLUENZA, which came out a couple of years ago, but haven't had the time!

Anonymous said...

The Virginian Pilot wrote an excellent set of articles on the Yellow Fever outbreak in Norfolk in the 1850's. It was facinating and scarry. If you want I can pull it off the archives and send it to you.
I always get a little sick whenever I check into a hotel room, so thanks for giving me the heebee-jeebees.

Anonymous said...

I never gave much thought about the avian flu possiblility or the consequences of such...but I was working on a film set and in the space of 48 hours had nearly 30 members of the cast and crew come down with a particularly nasty stomach flu. All of us were down for the count for about 24 hours. I can't remember ever being that sick and certainly don't want to experience it any time soon. But it did make me think about how awful things could be if something like the spanish flu were to hit again. Scary.

AnswerGirl said...

What's terrifying about stories of the 1918 outbreak is how fast it killed people. I read a story about four women who attended a bridge party one night; one had the infection, passed it to the others, and three were dead by morning.