H1N1: The Human Impact
What Matters Most Today we consider the psychological impact of the H1N1 Virus, what’s commonly called the “swine flu.” We all know that this is a new Type A flu that’s a genetic combination of swine, avian and human influenza viruses. Rather than talk about the epidemilogy of this flu virus, let’s consider our response on a more humanistic level. What’s our reaction to new information when it seems to threaten us?
Joining us today, by phone, are Tom Skinner, Senior Public Affairs Officer at the Centers for Disease Control, and John Tauer, Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas, and Nancy Childs, Professor of Marketing at St. Joseph’s University.
Starting with Tom Skinner at the CDC, we asked him how all this new information about the H1N1 Virus affect us. “We certainly don’t want people to be unnecessarily frightened or afraid. The best antidote for fear is information, and we simply want people to be informed.
“For the most part, people who come down with this novel strain of influenza are going to be just fine. They may feel miserable for a few days, some may feel like they’ve been hit by a train, but by and large they’re going to be just fine!
“However, there are some individuals who are really at increased risk for the serious complications from influenza, and then unfortunately we see people die from influenza. So, it’s high risk individuals that we really want to communicate the importance of following the steps to protect themselves and most of all get vaccinated when vaccines become available.”
John Tauer, Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas, offers his opinion about what he considers to be a healthy response to this virus. “What’s interesting is the ability to discern ‘How much fear should I have right now? What precautions do I want to take?’ And then, the other part of it, and this gets a little more away from the physiological into the psychological, ‘How much control (A) do I need to have and want to have; and (B) how much control can I have?’
“Often times, whether we want control or not, whether our body is panicking or not, often times we just don’t have much control over things outside of us and that’s a hard thing for us to accept especially in a society like ours where we preach individualism to our kids and you can be anything you want.
“Well, what that tells them in indirect terms is not only can you be anything you want but you can control your destiny. You alone are in control. And, that’s really healthy in a lot of achievement domains but when it comes to fear it’s going to lead us to try and grab on to something that we’d like to think we can control and we really can’t.
“There’s a certain amount you can do but there’s also a certain amount you have to live with. I don’t know that we can really control everything and the best thing people can do is just really be careful, short of locking themselves in the house for the next several months and saying, ‘I’m not going to go anywhere.’ Then we’d be sacrificing months of our lives because we don’t want a week or two of a really lousy illness.
“One of the things that may have helped was the initial buzz about swine flu, that initial scare and some of the cases that started to get publicity last year, but then it didn’t take off. It didn’t have that exponential growth. I think that allowed people to calm down a little bit and look at things rationally but also look at it as, ‘This is really serious, too.’ And, strike that balance between ‘Yeah, let’s have a healthy amount of fear but let’s be practical, too, and see what we can do.’ ”
Nancy Childs at St. Joseph’s University sees folks reacting to this flu virus in a variety of ways. “People act individually. You’re going to see people overreact, you’re going to see people underreact.
“You can get a segment of the population that starts crying for sanctions. If someone is out there ill and not practicing good hygiene, good preventitive health, should they be arrested, should they be penalized? You’ll have people that react in that way, asking for sanctions, which is not where you want to end up. You know you don’t want a police state over this.
“The other thing that’s fun is that people always do the thing you don’t expect. One of the things that came out…people didn’t want to go to restaurants at all because they felt that was too susceptible. But, you still want to see people, you still want to socialize.
“People somehow felt comfortable entertaining or socializing outdoors. Huge bump in barbecue! This idea that you could have a barbecue, socialize outside, that’s okay. They can take that risk. No one saw that coming, stores were not nearly prepared for the kind of purchases that generated.
“People are looking for other ways to substitute for their normal behavior. Mexico City was literally quarrantined two weeks. You go a little nutty when you’re confined that long.
“The CDC is putting out notes to schools. They’re giving them documents that they can utilize and right in them is telling parents to prepare for these lengthy absences and even suggestions about having board games and other activities to keep your child entertained at home.
“I always feel that we get interesting cultural bumps, almost discontinuities, when we have an unusual environment. And, once it happens, you don’t go back!”
Tom Skinner’s final thoughts for us are, “…we simply want people to get informed on what they can do to protect themselves. We want them to go about their business, their ordinary lives, but we just want them to take some simple, common sense steps to protect their health.
“And really mainly those are just making sure they don’t go out when they’re sick, they don’t send their kids to school when they’re sick. Stay home if you’re sick. Don’t expose yourself to others. And, wash your hands. We know that hand hygiene is important. And also getting vaccinated is the most important when vaccine becomes available.
“So, we have really good, elaborate surveillance systems in place to detect changes in the virus that we’re seeing. Fortunately, we’re not really seeing any right now and we’ve looked at viruses from all over the world and we haven’t been able to detect any significant changes to the virus that would be of concern to us at this point.
“We’ve got surveillance systems in place that helps us monitor flu activity in the United States. It also helps us determine if the anti-viral that we’re using to treat flu are effective. It helps us to detect any significant changes in the virus. Those systems are all in place and operational.”
The advice that Tom Skinner, John Tauer and Nancy Childs seems simple enough: Stay informed and don’t overreact. Decide what you can control and what you can’t control. Stay calm. Barbecue with friends. Keep the kids at home when they get sick and buy some new board games.
Very simply, it’s still a wonderful life.
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