Sunday Forum: Swine flu hits home

Funny thing, just about everyone in my family has caught it. Actually, it's not that funny, says CHARLIE STEWART

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I like to write articles from personal experience that make people laugh. So when my son got swine flu this past week, I was thinking to myself, what could I write about swine flu that is funny. The conclusion I came to is that there is nothing really funny about swine flu.

While my son was achy and feverish and coughing, it was all I could do to take care of him for four days. My wife was in China on business at the time, and I had blissfully forgotten how hard it is to take care of someone when they are sick. They can't do anything for themselves. You have to beg them to take fluids. They have to be reminded to take medications and you have to practically put them in their mouth.

In my son's case, for some reason, he never lost his appetite, so I was always trying to think of creative things he would like to eat while suffering from the flu. And they had to be gluten- and dairy-free, as he is newly diagnosed as having allergies. That kept me quite busy.

I didn't actually get him tested, because doctors and hospitals would be overwhelmed if we all rushed down to confirm suspected flu. I was told that if one has flu-like symptoms, you most likely have what the World Health Organization is calling "pandemic influenza H1N1 2009," and to stay home.

It was definitely a pandemic in our family. After my son came down with it, I got mild flu symptoms from being the caregiver. My daughter in college in Portland got swine flu. The only living thing in the house that hasn't been infected is our Welsh Corgi.

And indeed it seems everyone has a child or a niece or a nephew or a grandchild with swine flu.

To humor us through all of this, there aren't even any good swine flu jokes out there. Except for maybe the one submitted by Angel Castillo on the dailycomedy.com Web site. Did you hear that kindergarteners are learning a new alphabet? A-B-C-D- E-F-G-H-1-N-1-L-M-N-O-P ...

As I've been racking my brain trying to figure out what is so funny about swine flu, all I can think of is that swine flu is giving our young an awful fever, keeping them from being educated for three or four days and bestowing on them a hacking cough that stays with them like an old set of luggage.

You know what's funny? You may think swine flu is called swine flu because it comes from pigs. Well ... not exactly. Actually it's because the media thought it would be easier for us folks to remember than its official title of "quadruple reassortant virus." Now, to me, that sounds like something you really don't want to catch.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes this particular flu as having two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and in bird genes and human genes. My pharmacist said they could have called it anything, such as "bird flu," but that was taken.

What's not so funny is we've been trying to take my doctor's advice seriously. We were advised to:

1) Wash hands frequently;

2) Keep hands away from faces, especially the nose and mouth;

3) Cough into the upper sleeve;

4) And if one is a caregiver for someone with swine flu, the Allegheny County Health Department recommends maintaining a distance of six feet from the afflicted.

As Bill Cosby used to say when imitating what might have been Noah's response to God's request for him to build an ark 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 40 cubits: "Rrrrrright ... !!"

My mother neglected to heed No. 4 when she was visiting her grandson. Now she's flat on her back with a cough and chills.

And I can't touch a doorknob now. I was not so sensitive about touching faucets and handles in public places, but I've gotten more and more paranoid. For good reason it seems. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, germs can live for up to eight hours on all the surfaces you touch, like money. When my son was sick, I was washing the dishes with the hottest water I could handle and then running the dishes through the dishwasher -- twice!

While I was on my way to the doctor's office last week, I asked the woman next to me how she's coping with swine flu and if she touches elevator buttons. She gave me a knowing look and said she doesn't pick anything up off the floor, ever; she uses her foot to kick down the handle to flush in public rest rooms and keeps her hand sanitizer handy.

In my case, I wash my hands thoroughly (without singing "Happy Birthday") after I've touched anything in public. And for extra insurance, I always carry anti-bacterial wipes, which are particularly useful after a party when you have greeted lots of people.

Except for a swine flu party that is. If hosting a swine flu party, you are supposed to do the opposite. You call up all your closest friends who haven't yet become infected. You get real cozy with each other and don't cover your mouth when coughing, don't wash your hands, but do share your silver and glassware, and hope you go home with H1N1, which will then supposedly allow you to build a natural immunity to the various forms it may take in the future.

Needless to say, the CDC doesn't find that humorous and frowns upon the notion of a contagion-spreading, swine-flu fest.

And what about that vaccine we've been promised? The government keeps saying it's coming, but most of us can't get it yet, and when it does arrive, we all will have been exposed anyway. Polls suggest 60 percent of Americans don't want to receive the H1N1 vaccine, even after it's widely available. That's fine with me. I won't have to wait as long in line.

This flu may not be as dire as predicted -- after all, regular seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans every year -- but it is estimated that "millions" of Americans have had it, resulting in 20,000 hospitalizations and, sadly, more than 1,000 deaths. And this despite the fact that a public health emergency was declared by Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, way back on April 26, well before President Barack Obama's recent declaration of a national emergency.

At any rate, the worst of the swine flu may almost be over, according to two University of Purdue math researchers. Sherry Towers and Zhilan Feng used a fancy mathematical model to predict that cases of H1N1 will peak "near the end of October."

If true, we are almost out of the woods. Unless my Welsh Corgi catches something. But my veterinarian assured me that when it comes to viruses, humans have more in common with pigs, and dogs have more in common with horses.

She might be right, because as far as I know I have never contracted a bug from my faithful 16-year-old pooch. Still, I'm not taking any chances. The "bucking bronco bug" is not getting me. If my dog starts sneezing, I'm tossing him his food and treats from six feet away!


Charlie Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Squirrel Hill ( cps.three@verizon.net ).


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