Swine Flu: What We Should Do for One Another

What follows is a guest post by Ruth A. Karron and Ruth R. Faden. Ruth A. Karron is the director of the Center for Immunization Research and Johns Hopkins Vaccine Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ruth R. Faden is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.


At this point, it is impossible to predict whether we are on the brink of an influenza pandemic. The threat is real, however, and governments across the globe are working hard to mitigate the potential impact of swine flu.

This is right and proper. Our government has an obligation to protect the public’s health, which it exercised responsibly by declaring a national public health emergency on Sunday. This declaration is the public face of countless actions that federal, state, and local health authorities are now undertaking on our behalf. But these are not the only actions that will be needed. There are also actions that we as citizens must undertake to minimize the swine flu threat that will help us protect ourselves and our families. These actions are not only prudent; they are a matter of moral and civic responsibility. Just as our government has an obligation to protect the public’s health, we too have an obligation to our country and to our fellow human beings to do our share to minimize the burdens of this influenza outbreak.

What can each of us do?

Stay informed: New information about swine flu will be generated rapidly in the near term, and possibly longer. DHS Secretary Napolitano has committed to providing daily briefings for the foreseeable future. It is important that we commit to accessing that information, as well as information that may pertain to our local settings, so that we understand what is happening and can take action as needed.

Abide by public health recommendations: As public health officials learn more about the extent and spread of swine flu, new recommendations may be made to limit public gatherings, close schools or workplaces, or restrict or modify travel. These “social distancing” measures should reduce the public health burden of influenza by slowing down the pace by which flu will spread, but they will only work if each of us does our part.

Follow basic hygiene practices: Good hand hygiene is always important, but particularly so in this context. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based cleanser. Use a tissue to cover your nose or mouth if you cough or sneeze, and dispose of the tissue properly or, if you don’t have a tissue, sneeze into your upper sleeve. Avoid touching your nose or mouth frequently.

Be vigilant and responsible if you or a loved one becomes ill: Contact a healthcare provider if you or a member of your household develops a fever and follow his or her instructions. Keep the person who is ill out of work or school. Unless someone is seriously ill, avoid using emergency rooms to evaluate possible flu symptoms. Even as we monitor this latest threat to public health, people will continue to have medical emergencies like heart attacks and car accidents, and it is important that emergency rooms be able to take care of those who need immediate medical attention.

Prepare for the possibility of staying in your home: One possible social distancing measure that public health authorities could ask us to undertake is to stay at home for a period of time. A basic principle of emergency preparedness is that each of us should have sufficient food and water in our homes to last our families in such an eventuality. Now is the time to make sure that your family is well provisioned, not only to protect yourselves but also out of recognition that some families do not have the money or stable housing required to stockpile food. If those of us who have the means take care of our own needs, it will be easier for the government and community organizations to take care of those who do not.

Check on your neighbors: If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to get to know your neighbors. Find out if any of them may need a little extra help dealing with this public health threat. People who live alone, for example, may appreciate your checking in with them from time to time, and elderly neighbors may need your help stocking up on food. Parents of school age children may want to talk through how they can help each other if schools in your area close but some workplaces stay open.

In his inaugural address, President Obama declared: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.” Our individual and collective response to this swine flu outbreak will be one important measure of whether we as Americans and as citizens of the global community are living up to what the President has asked of us.

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