Column by Sharon Byrne as featured in this week’s Santa Barbara Sentinel.
Full disclosure: I am one of those people who pay little attention to flu. I rarely get sick. I never bother getting flu shots.
I came down with the flu over the holidays, and trudged off to the drug store for decongestants and aspirin. I took to bed for a couple of days, and coughed and sneezed for a couple of weeks. It was annoying, debilitating, and exhausting.
Then I saw all the headlines about the flu outbreak in the US. This year seems to be the most lethal in a decade for influenza. Boston had 70 cases reported last winter, but over 700 this year, prompting the city to declare a state of emergency. 47 states have reported widespread outbreaks, though California is not one of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Public health officials are tracking the outbreak, and even using Twitter and Google to keep on top of the situation.
Even though flu is like a nasty uber-cold on steroids for some of us, it can actually be deadly particularly to vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Dr. Wada, head of Santa Barbara County Public Health, presented flu data for the county at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. He said our first death in the county from influenza occurred this week, an 80 year-old woman.
I’ve also been receiving emails and updates from Geof Bard, a self-described community health activist, and a man who has taken flu evangelism to new heights.
Geof became an activist in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis, considered a significant turning point in the National Institute of Health’s response to the public outcry. Now residing in Santa Barbara, Geof has taken to educating others about the flu, speaking out at the Board of Supervisors and City Council meetings. His particular interest right now is
in preventing the spread among a group that often struggles with a compromised immune system, and spends a lot of time outdoors: the homeless.
With the onset of cold temperatures, warming centers began opening up. Geof saw the potential for problems: people congregating and sleeping in common areas, unaware of the potential for flu outbreaks, lack of prevention measures in place, and with no method of containment readily available.
He decided to do something about it.
Geof teaches cough hygiene as a way to prevent the spread of influenza. He’s launched the Cough Hygiene Initiative, a sub-project of his Alliance to Teach Everywhere About Community Health (causes.com/TEACH). Like any good evangelist, he¹s fierce, tenacious, and naturally, ruffles feathers, including those of warming center staff, and Reverend Mark Asman, over conditions at that camp at the labyrinth of Trinity Episcopal Church last year.
I sat down with Geof to see why he was so determined to spread awareness about this year¹s flu outbreak. Flu is viral, in the literal sense of that word. It spreads. The National Institute of Health published a study in 1982 showing that flu viruses can live up to 24 hours on stainless steel and plastic. Those same viruses lasted for 8-12 hours on cloth, paper and tissue surfaces. Think about how much transference is possible just by hand, when you touch money, door handles, clothing, blankets, cutlery, etc. Then touch your nose, mouth, or rub an eye, something we all do, unconsciously, multiple times daily, and you¹ve got it.
To prevent flu spread, wash your hands often. Use anti-bacterial gel and hand sanitizer.
Influenza transmission is also airborne. Droplets from coughing or sneezing can extend up to 6 feet outwards. Super-tiny particles from talking or breathing can remain airborne for hours. In close quarters like a warming center, influenza spread would be nearly guaranteed.
To minimize exposure, Geof urges that you cough and sneeze into your elbow, rather than into your hands. This will reduce the airborne contingent, and reduce chance of touch transmission.
Geof is relieved that the national flu outbreak is making it into the public awareness locally, and is focused on helping the homeless avoid contagion. He secured funding for and distributed personal headlamps to those who successfully modeled the elbow cough technique. He distributes the hand sanitizers to homeless outreach organizations, meal providers and, of course, to the homeless.
Take your health, and the health of those around you, seriously this winter. Use these measures to avoid the flu. Stay home if you’re sick. Get that flu shot.
I know I will be.