Every few years, there’s a new threat to public health that catches our attention. In 2003, it was SARS. In 2006, it was the bird flu. And this year, it’s the swine flu. But it’s not always the seriousness of the emergency that drives our level of attention; it’s often the attention itself that spawns more attention and public reaction.
A couple of years ago, we experienced the worldwide panic from thebird flu (H5N1). Although not as prevalent in the local news as it was 2 – 3 years ago, the bird flu continues to be a deadly killer in Asia; since 2003, over 200 people have died from it, and millions of poultry have been destroyed. Outbreaks have been occuring on almost a daily basis in the past several months throughout Asia. A vaccine still has not been developed for the H5N1 strain, but you don’t hear anything about it now on tv. But it certainly was a major topic of conversation not too long ago, when it was not as dangerous.
Within the USA, the hysterity was heightened when Oprah did a show about it in January 2006. On that show, she reviewed the basics of the flu in discussions with a Dr. Michael Osterholm, and told people how they could prepare themselves for it. She showed a 3M 8511mask (an N95 respirator with an exhalation valve) and told people that was a good self-protection item to have just in case the flu made its way to the USA. Almost overnight, inventories of 3M 8511 masks were sold out across the country, as people scurried to purchase them online. When 8511′s were gone, people started buying deeply into the inventories of the 3M 8210 masks (which provides the same level of protection, but does not have an exhalation valve).
It reached the point where the panic buying was so great that the US government apparently brokered a deal with 3M to freeze all shipments of 8000 series respirators to US distributors for a bit so that the US goverment could build its own reserves, just in case. With supplies beginning to dry up and sellers increasing prices for what was available, demand eased up after a couple of weeks and then faded pretty much altogether. That is until Oprah’s show was re-run a few months later, and the panic buying started up all over again. The second go-around of panic was briefer, however, apparently when people realized this was old news.
However, on a global scale, all indications are that the bird flu is still a serious problem. Millions of chickens with infections have been slain over the last couple of years, and an increasing number of human infections have been confirmed as well. However, since it’s not seen in the US, and there have not been updated media reports about it here, it’s been pretty much on the back burner here as a worry. Things are actually worse then when Oprah first talked about the issue, but no cares about it anymore.
In late April 2009, the swine flu (H1N1) reared its head as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) began issuing warnings about a possible pandemic. Driven by news reports, the panic buying of N95 masks was sparked again.
Although inventories were sharply drained, many distributors had prepared themselves by stocking more than usually usage. Still, many online sellers sold more masks in one week than they usually sell in a year. Even people who did not have masks to sell got into the act to try to make a quick buck. Ebay users would lists masks for sale at a high price, and if someone bought tem, they would buy them at a lower price from a different Ebay seller and have that seller ship to the customer directly. How could that work, you ask? Well, th eprice disparity between increased market price and ongoing price of themasks was so great that a speculative seller could list and sell the masks at a very high price, and still find lots of ongoing businesses still selling the masks at closer to regular prices, so there was profit to be made. And since there was panic, many people did not price shop online. They saw what they needed, saw that the seller only had one box or one case available, and so they bought it right away… out of fear that the merchandise might be sold quickly to someone else if they didn’t. Foolishness, but that’s an efffect of mass public hysteria.
The swine flu buying fizzled out after about 10 days. Partly, that was because people didn’t see their friends and neighbors being infected, and news reports that this strain of the flu was no more serious than the seasonal we all see every year. Partly, that was because that the most panic-driven people already had purchased the masks they needed, and they were in the closet not being used. And partly, that was because companies like Ebay took actions to make it more difficult for buyers to find the masks online. Just as they had done for the bird flu scare, Ebay began deleting listings for N95 masks that had the words “swine flu” in the title. Since buyers were typing in “swine flu masks”, their searches were starting to come up empty.
What’s curious about this is that the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both continued to increase their warning levels about the H1N1 virus. One June 11, the alert was increased to the highest level in history and a flu pandemic was declared for the first time in 41 years. The flu has now hit 72 countries around the world, with over 25,000 confirmed cases (more than 13,000 in the USA) and at least 139 deaths. On a personal level, a family we know in southern California (husband, wife and two boys) was stricken by the flu a couple of weeks ago, causing them to feel “sicker than ever before”. They were bed-ridden for a couple of weeks, but were finally able to recover. Again, things are worse than they were 6 weeks ago, but the public concern has waned.
Millions of years ago, dinosaurs rambled around the earth. There have been all sorts of theories as to why they died out, from a meteor crashing into the earth over 65 million years ago that created a toxic cloud that blocked the sun for a period of time to a severe ice age to some sort of plague. Might that have been the H8N0 dionsaur flu? How did the cavemen respond to that? Did they slaughter all of the dinosaurs themselves (like we have destroyed chickens in Asia to fight bird flu infections), for fear that they might become infected? It’s doubtful there were any “doctors” who might have understood what might be happening at that time. For sure, there was not an Oprah or a news channel to tell them there was cause for worry. And there weren’t the sorts of protective devices (like N95 masks) that we have today to help isolate our bodies from airborne viruses. So it’s likely that they simply died through it or lived through it, with the hardiest of them allowing their own body chemistries to develop immunities that carry forward to our own bodies today. So I guess we can thank the cavemen for that. We, too , now survive the most vicious of viruses that might have claimed millions in an earlier time. And we, too, build the immunities for the generations yet to come.
Mike Lee www.BeedoSafety.com