Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Prevention is better than control

This is my column today.

For a while there, it did seem like everything was all right with the world. We had about a month or two of respite from the type of events that sent blood pressures racing to new heights.

The hiatus saw media people scraping the bottom for newsworthy events that they could play up into screaming headlines.

We knew there was a dearth of earthshaking news material because even Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s off-the-cuff remark about how Senators Ping Lacson and Manny Villar should simply shoot each other to resolve their differences became banner material for some media organizations. Of course it was a preposterous statement to make. But then again, it came from the mouth of a senator renowned for making controversial statements all year round so there was hardly anything new there.

I also agree that the circumstances around Trina Arteche Etong’s death were newsworthy; the way the situation was managed by the Quezon City Police Department was even more worthy of mention. But the insane attention devoted to it by some media quarters was just over the top. One daily broadsheet devoted practically 80 percent of its front page and about a whole inside page to Etong’s death, even including interviews of Etong’s relatives in Leyte and a rather amusing sidebar about who the Arteches are and how they are connected to political dynasties in Tacloban City.

But just as we’re getting used to the relative peace and quiet, we woke up last week to a series of earthshaking events that threatened to alter our lives significantly.

Let’s leave for another discussion the implications of Daniel Smith’s acquittal by the Court of Appeals, the repercussions of the sudden swelling of the number of seats at the House of Representatives, the early campaign for the 2010 presidential elections (four potential candidates now have serious campaign programs ongoing, all masquerading as advocacy campaigns), and the mind-boggling—and for some people, nauseating—very public declaration of eternal love and devotion between presidential hopeful Senator Mar Roxas and celebrity broadcaster Korina Sanchez.

I think that the main news this week is potential spread of human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) more popularly referred to as swine flu.

I don’t want to necessarily alarm people, but unless the spread of the epidemic is contained, the swine flu that is sweeping Mexico and which has found its way into the United States and even some countries in Europe is a major cause for concern. Despite what our health experts and epidemiologists say, there really is a lot more about swine flu that experts need to be certain of. Experts at the Center for Disease Control in the United States are still racing against time to learn more about the virus.

It is presumed that the virus is being transmitted through human-to-human contact the way ordinary flu is passed on —but health experts are still verifying empirically if this is really the case. In the meantime, the precautions that are followed to avoid flu transmissions are prescribed and they really are simple doable things such as washing hands more often, not touching one’s nose or mouth, avoiding sneezing or coughing without covering the mouth or nose, staying home if one has flu-like symptoms, etc.

In the past, swine flu was something that happened sporadically and only to a very limited number of people—the most number of infections was tagged at 12, none of which died. The number of infections reported yesterday was nearing 3,000. At least 145 have died.

What’s more, cases of swine flu were detected within days in various parts of the world apparently on people who were exposed to the virus in Mexico or people who were in Mexico recently. Global health authorities are now using the term pandemic, which illustrates the potential harm that swine flu could bring globally.

And really, the spread of a virus that is unfortunately contagious is easier today because of faster and more readily accessible modes of human transportation. Theoretically, someone who was exposed to the virus in Mexico City or New York City could be halfway around the world within 24 hours bringing with him the virus and potentially infecting others at airport terminals and other public places.

It makes sense for governments to install control measures at points of entry. Unfortunately, this is not foolproof as it is possible that an infected person may not display flu-like symptoms and may not be aware that he or she is passing on the virus to others. Theoretically, one can transmit the virus and infect others on Day 1 of infection or while he or she is sick with swine flu.

Installing controls at airport terminals cannot be the extent of our response to the swine flu pandemic because lest we forget, we are an archipelago composed of more than 7,000 islands and that not everyone who enters the country goes through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where the high-tech equipment to detect higher body temperatures is located. We have other international airports and it would be comforting to also know that the same sensors are available there. Also, it might help to be reminded that we have back doors in the south as well as a number of ports that are open to international and regional voyagers.

Clearly, relying purely on control measures in a few terminals is not enough. It probably assuages some people suffering from extreme paranoia but we must not lose sight of the fact that prevention is always a far better and more effective course of action than control. The best way not to get infected is to protect one’s self against being infected rather than putting the responsibility solely in the hands of other people such as government.

In this light, it is important for the government to step up its information campaign on the swine flu pandemic and empower people to do what is right such as how to protect themselves. People should also be advised what to do when they or someone they know experience symptoms of swine flu.

It should also include correct information such as facts about wearing surgical masks. Most television footages show people wearing masks, as if wearing masks alone would do the trick. There is no documented case of swine flu in the country yet so there’s really no urgent need to rush to buy surgical masks. Besides, ordinary surgical masks won’t do the trick—they only protect people from droplets that may be coughed or sneezed in one’s direction. There’s also no documented case of swine flu being acquired from eating pork.

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