8 Ways Swine Flu Is Changing Society
The World Health Organization officially declared the virus a pandemic in June, and announced in early September that at least 3,205 people have died from the virus. And while more than 60 percent of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” worried about swine flu (H1N1) affecting them or their families, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the scare has left its mark on many parts of society, both in the United States and abroad. Here, eight ways swine flu is changing the world.
1. People are reconsidering cultural greetings
The French are well known for offering la bise, a quick peck on each cheek, as a way of saying hello and goodbye. But with the fear of transmitting the H1N1 virus, some schools and companies—and even the health ministry’s swine flu hotline—recommend avoiding this practice. One mayor in a small French town in the province of Brittany has actually banned the kisses, telling National Public Radio, “What’s the point in the preventative hand washing when people are still kissing each other all the time?”
Spanish, Mexican and Lebanese government officials have also discouraged kissing greetings, and school officials in New York have even discouraged students from exchanging high fives. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, warns thathandshaking, too, could come under fire if the spread of the virus gets worse. “Any specialist would say that shaking hands is not a great habit if you’re interested in controlling an infectious disease.”
2. It’s scarier than religion
Swine flu is even changing some long-held religious practices: The Archdiocese of New York told Catholic New Yorkers they may refrain from the traditional handshaking at mass. One rabbi in Brookline, Mass., told National Public Radio that he was suggesting congregants at his temple greet each other with a “Buddhist bow” or an “Obama fist bump” during September’s High Holy Days.
Muslims celebrating Ramadan in Kuwait and Lebanon have been advised not to hug, and, if the flu outbreak worsens, mosques could consider asking people to bring their own prayer mats to services. In Spain, Roman Catholics are being asked to refrain from kissing a statue of the country’s patron saint, and Italy has banned the kissing of two vials thought to contain the blood of a saint.
3. Schools, workplaces and day-cares are changing policies
Telling an entire country or religious congregation to stop shaking hands or kissing may prove tricky to control, however. “It’s easier to implement when a school or an institution or a company collectively decides, ‘We’re not going to do this for the duration of this epidemic,’” says Pascal James Imperato, M.D., dean and distinguished professor of public health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. And many are doing just that.
Colleges have updated handbooks to urge students and professors to stay home with even the slightest feeling of illness and to frequently clean often-touched objects in their dorms, such as remote controls and doorknobs. Offices are creating policies allowing employees to work staggered shifts or providing them with the materials needed to work from home. And day-care organizations have urged parents to consider making back-up plans should the centers need to cut their services with short notice.
- How some teachers are dealing with school closings and student absences: Virtual Classrooms.
4. People are scared to eat pork
China, Russia and Ukraine were quick to ban pork produced in the United States when the virus was first detected, and soon a total of 27 countries had followed suit. The boycotts have wrecked havoc on the pork industry, causing the government to actually bail out farmers who have been forced to sell their pork at lower costs, Time magazine reports.
The irony, of course, is that it’s not at all possible for H1N1 to spread through eating infected bacon or hot dogs—and even so, there have been zero cases of infected pigs in the United States. The H1N1 virus actually has avian, swine and human genes, and may not even make pigs sick, scientists say. Unfortunately for pork producers, “swine flu” has become the common name for this flu.
5. Tourism to Mexico has suffered
When the first cases of swine flu were linked to having originated in Mexico, the Centers for Disease Control initially recommended canceling all travel plans south of the border unless the trip was absolutely essential. Three weeks later, the warning was lifted.
The WHO has insisted that international travel does not need to be restricted. Barry agrees: “At this point, the virus is everywhere,” he says. “Where are you not going to go to avoid it? But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who wouldn’t be a little panicked.”
Those panicked travelers delivered quite a hit to Mexico’s tourism industry, which was already in trouble due to negative violence- and drug-related publicity. Travel Web site TripAdvisor.com reported a 50 percent decrease in searches for Mexican destinations by May, according to SmartMoney.com. Hotels and airports sat empty in May, and airlines flying to Mexico have also reported millions of dollars in losses that they claim are flu-related.
The good news? If you still want to go, you can get flights and hotel rooms on the cheap.
6. Precautionary (and bizarre) merchandise is flying off shelves
Soon after the virus first surfaced, consumers became caught up in the hype about the pandemic, says Dr. Imperato—turning to whatever precautionary merchandise they could get over the counter. Logical purchases included facemasks and antibacterial soaps, but plenty of other companies have cashed in on the marketing craze in over-the-top and even unrelated ways, as well.
There are flu kits (complete with full-body suits), swine-flu-spam computer virus protection, a viral stop-the-spread online game and, of course, all sorts of pig paraphernalia.
7. Coughing and sneezing are practically federal crimes
Symptoms of sickness may not be against the law quite yet, but there does seem to be an abundance of dirty looks going around in response to simple public throat clearing. It seems that everyone is more aggressively cautious of coughing and sneezing in public, and perhaps rightly so.
A simple sneeze sends as many as 100,000 droplets of germs from your mouth and nose into the air within 3 to 5 feet at about 100 mph, according to CNN’s A360°. The germs can then hang in the air for up to a minute, so even if the droplets don’t land on a nearby person, he or she could still walk through the germy cloud and catch a virus.
Even worse, coughing or sneezing into a hand and then touching a public space, like a subway pole, a door handle or a shared computer keyboard, spreads the range of the germs. Remember good cold and flu etiquette: Whenever you can, cough or sneeze into a tissue, or at least use your elbow and sleeve to cover your mouth instead of your hands.
8. People may finally get flu shots
In the 2005-2006 season, so many people did not get the vaccine that 18 million doses had to be thrown away. If this pandemic has a silver lining, it’s that more people are making the decision to actively protect themselves against germs in general—and that’s good news, since everyyear even the “regular” seasonal flu (and complications of the flu) kills about 36,000 Americans, and anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide.
An August Gallup poll found that 55 percent of respondents see themselves getting a swine flu vaccine if one becomes available, up from 46 percent in May. And while the H1N1 vaccine won’t be available until at least mid-October, seasonal flu shots this year are being administered earlier than usual—and recommended more strongly by health officials—in anticipation of increased interest.
Many drug stores, employers and schools are already offering the seasonal flu vaccine, and some counties are administering the shots at no charge.
Still, many people are skeptical of either shot’s effectiveness, and probably won’t get vaccinated or give the vaccine to their children. Pregnant women are especially at risk, but typically have very low rates of vaccination due to worries that the shots won’t be healthy for their babies.
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