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Computers and the Internet Can Be Key Flu Avoidance and Prevention Tools

Charles Moore - 2009.04.28 (updated) - Tip Jar

In the next few weeks or months, one of the most valuable attributes of portable computers may be one that has nothing to do with clock speed, video accelerators, RAM, or hard drive capacity - and everything to do with the fact that computers in general (and laptops in particular) can be powerful tools for keeping connected with our livelihoods and other people without close physical contact.

There are plenty of viruses on the Internet, but happily not the kind that give you influenza or pneumonia. Your computer my get the digital "flu" - especially if it's a Windows PC - but you won't.

The Swine Flu Pandemic

With the brushfire advance of a new influenza A H1N1 (so-called "swine flu") virus in Mexico proving alarmingly deadly, with the death toll in that country climbing from 84 on Sunday to 149 at this writing in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, cases of illness caused by this novel virus have been confirmed in several US states, two provinces of Canada, and a few in Spain and the UK.

The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level to an almost unprecedented Phase 4 on Monday (it has only gone to Phase 4 once, in 1999), and this thing is getting truly scary. It's already an epidemic, and we could very well be in the early phase of a global pandemic of a scale not seen since the "Spanish Influenza" pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed 20 to 100 million people worldwide. My late mother, who lived through that one as a preadolescent, was traumatized by it for life, recalling that entire families in the community where she resided died.

This "swine flu" really isn't, strictly speaking, and is reported to be a nasty combination of human, swine, and bird flu viruses containing the DNA of North American swine influenza, a swine influenza virus typically found in Asia and Europe, another human influenza A, and a North American avian influenza, and, unlike true swine flu, it evidently has little trouble achieving human-to-human transmission, which is the troubling factor here.

Don't Spread It

Ergo: Public health authorities in my region, and perhaps yours, are already recommending that anyone manifesting symptoms stay home, avoid contact with family or household members as much as possible, and not show up at doctors' offices, health clinics, or hospital emergency rooms without phoning for professional health care advice first.

It should go without saying that once the virus is established in your area, staying home and out of contact with others as much as possible will be the prudent strategy, which, as noted, makes computers and the Internet a powerful tool for mitigating the negative economic and social impact of quarantines, whether they be imposed by regulation or self-imposed out of prudence and not-so-common sense.

I truly hate and dread colds and flu, being one of the unfortunates who gets really sick from either. Even a simple, uncomplicated case of common cold usually knocks me out of action for at least a week, while I'm fortunate to get back to normal from a full-blown case of flu inside of a month, and it sometimes takes longer than that. Consequently, I take flu epidemics of any sort very seriously.

Flu Epidemic History

The first documented influenza epidemic was possibly the 16th century "English Sweat", thought to have been transported from the Orient by sailors. There have been at least ten major epidemics or pandemics of flu since the 1550s, including three in the 20th century, all type-A viruses, in 1918-19, 1933, and 1957.

In the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic it is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of people in most countries worldwide contracted the disease, including more than 500,000 North Americans, and an estimated 20 million to 100 million worldwide died - mostly young to middle-aged people, which have ominously been the primary mortality demographic with this current outbreak in Mexico. At one point during the Spanish Flu pandemic, more than 10% of the US workforce was bedridden.

Of the 57,000 US soldiers who died in World War I, some 43,000 (85%) were killed by Spanish influenza, not battle wounds. Entire villages in remote parts of northern Canada and Alaska were wiped out by the virus. Even on the isolated South Pacific island of Western Samoa, 20% of the population died of the Spanish flu over a few months. The only country in the world to escape relatively lightly was Australia, thanks to strict quarantine regulations.

The World Health Organization has estimated that in the best case scenario, the next flu pandemic could kill two to seven million people and send tens of millions to hospital.

Flu Myths

Unfortunately, several durable myths are associated with colds and flus.

Myth #1: There's nothing you can do to avoid flu and colds because 'they're in the air.'

Reality: They are only "in the air" when you're sharing it with an infected person. For example, at polar research stations, no one gets colds during long months of isolation from the outside world. You can't catch a cold or flu virus unless you come in contact with someone who already has the bug or something they've left germs on by touching or sneezing.

Some people carry and spread viruses without getting symptoms themselves, and, according to Nova Scotia's public health officer, those infected with the H1N1 virus can be contagious from 24 hours before onset of symptoms to up to seven days following recovery. A person with an upper respiratory virus infection should feel obligated to go into isolation as much as possible in order not to spread the virus to other people.

In short: if you're sick - stay home. If your kids are sick - keep them home too.

Myth #2: Flu and colds are spread by coughs and sneezes.

Reality: While airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes can indeed spread colds, research indicates that the most efficient transmission vector is hand-to-hand, or, more frequently: "nose-to-hand-to-surface-to-hand-to-nose or eyes." Viruses can survive on dry surfaces for 48 hours or more. It's prudent to wash your hands a lot during epidemics - and keep them away from your face.

Unhappily, computers and cellphones used by more than one person can be very efficient disease vectors, which is something to keep in mind. An Apple Knowledge Base article on the topic says:

"In addition to regular cleaning of your computer and input devices (keyboards, trackpads, and mice), you may find it necessary to disinfect them.

"Multiple people using the same computer, people using the computer when they were ill, and the particular environment where the computer is used, are a few reasons you may wish to disinfect areas of the computer that people come into contact with the most."

The article goes on to suggest that "to properly disinfect these areas, you should use Lysol Wipes, Clorox Disinfecting wipes, or Clorox Kitchen Disinfecting Wipes...."

One avenue of vector interdiction and prevention has been use of keyboards, mice, mouse pads, wrist-rests, and even cellphones that have been coated with antimicrobial agents, organic (i.e.: either antibiotics, probably not so good for you) or silver-based.

However, a damper - to say the least - was put on the antimicrobial input device market when the EPA fined ATEN Technology, Inc., of Irvine, CA, peripherals-maker IOGear's parent company, $208,000 for selling "unregistered pesticides" and making "unproven claims" about their effectiveness.

"We're seeing far too many unregistered products that assert unsubstantiated antimicrobial properties," Katherine Taylor, associate director of the Communities and Ecosystems Division in EPA's Pacific Southwest region, is quoted commenting. "Whether the claim involves use of an existing material such as silver, or new nano technology, the EPA takes these unverified public health claims very seriously. Consumers should always follow commonsense hygiene practices, like washing hands frequently and thoroughly."

Myth #3: Colds and flu are relatively trivial illnesses we should just resign ourselves to putting up with.

Reality: Even in normal years, more than 100,000 people are hospitalized in North America with flu and its complications - and about 23,000 of them die. Complications of colds include bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, mastoiditis, meningitis, pneumonia, and exacerbation of chronic illnesses.

According to the late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, every viral illness a person suffers from "damages his or her body in a permanent way to some extent, and shortens his or her life expectancy."

Economic losses related to colds and flu amount to tens of billions of dollars each year. The stock markets are already reflecting that in this epidemic.

Myth #4: Modern medicines can cure colds.

Reality: While there are somewhat effective anti-viral medicines such as amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir and oseltamivir (Tamiflu), they're far from surefire cures, and while some of the thousands of over-the-counter cough and cold remedies that flood the market may make you feel better temporarily, they just mask symptoms and are emphatically not a cure. They may even make you sicker.

Prescription antibiotics can't "cure" colds or flu either, although they can be effective against opportunistic bacterial infections that sometimes accompany viral illnesses. In the case of uncomplicated colds or flu, antibiotics are useless, and routine misprescription of these powerful drugs for simple viral ailments has contributed to development of antibiotic-resistant strains of serious bacterial diseases.

What to Do?

Is there anything you can do for flu beyond avoiding sick people, and, if that fails, resting in bed and waiting it out? It's something to discuss with your doctor, naturopath, or other health care professional. However, here are a few interesting tidbits I've encountered journalistically researching the topic of viral infections for newspaper articles over the years.

Flu shots can help, but their effectiveness is more than a bit of a crap-shoot depending upon how accurately the formulators of each year's vaccine predict the particular viruses that will be troublesome. Some critics suggest that the flu vaccine's real-world effectiveness rate is at best about 20% and the risk of harmful side-effects outweighs potential benefits from the inoculations.

Naturopathic doctors recommend eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking vitamins, minerals, and other supplements to keep one's vitality and immune system response optimized. Linus Pauling advocated mega-doses of Vitamin C for prevention and treatment of colds and flu, although Pauling's ideas were not endorsed by mainstream medicine and have been been ridiculed by some.

Herbalists and naturopaths contend that a herb called echinacea is effective in bolstering immune response to colds, flu, and other infections. echinacea is thought to enhance the body's production of interferon and other immuno-active compounds.

Naturopaths also suggest zinc lozenges for treating flu symptoms, and oregano oil (origanum vulgare or Origanum dictamnus), which is claimed also work as an antimicrobial and flu preventative. Others recommend Lactobacillus acidophilus and other probiotics.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal several years ago found that subjects who took two 200 mg capsules per day of North American ginseng had 25% fewer colds, less severe symptoms, and shorter illnesses than those who took a placebo.

Chinese herbalists claim that dried root of astragalus can stimulate immune function and help prevent colds and flu. Extract of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is also claimed to contain compounds active against flu viruses by preventing the virus from attacking cells.

The homeopathic cold and flu medicine Oscillococcinum ("Oscillo" for short) is reportedly the second-largest-selling single product in French pharmacies. Homeopathics don't treat the disease or its symptoms directly but are purported to activate the body's own healing processes to fight the illness. Many people say they find homeopathic cold and flu remedies effective.

Oscillo has no side-effects, and is safe for both children and adults. I know people who swear by it, but its alleged effectiveness is controversial, to say the least, with mainstream medicine dismissing homeopathic remedies as having no side-effects because, they assert, they have no effect at all other than perhaps acting as a placebo. On the other hand, a German study cited by the British Homeopathic Journal found that patients with flu symptoms treated with Oscillo had a 63% greater recovery rates over 48 hours than a placebo-control group.

However, the best strategy in epidemics and pandemics is to avoid getting sick in the first place if you can, wash hands frequently and thoroughly, wear masks when around infected people (or in any human contact situation if a pandemic materializes), and avoid touching you mouth, nose, or eyes with your hands unless they've just been washed. Disinfect surfaces that may have come into contact with the virus, minimize direct human-to-human contact, and make use of computers and the Internet for communication and socializing as much as possible, which is a big advantage we have this time over previous global flu crises.

Editor's note: Forbes has an article on Virtually Flu-Free Meetings that promotes teleconferencing as another tool for getting work done while vastly reducing the opportunity for disease to spread.

Wikipedia already has an article about the 2009 Swine Flu Outbreak, and there's also a Google Map showing where cases and deaths have been reported. For more news, see Swine Flu Bulletins & Headline News.

Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation is being shared via Twitter and other Internet resources - see Swine flu allows Twitter to show its power to mislead.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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