Image: Woman buying hand sanitizer
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
Ivonne Vazquez buys one of the last bottles of hand sanitizer at a pharmacy in Los Angeles earlier this week.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/1/2009 6:25:43 PM ET 2009-05-01T22:25:43

As Americans nervously watch the spread of swine flu headlines, many aren't willing to sit on their hands and wait to see whether the disease sputters out or explodes. Instead, they are slathering on the sanitizer, canceling their kids' slumber parties and avoiding their favorite burrito joint.

Even as President Barack Obama assured the country that this week's outbreak may turn out to be no more serious than the ordinary flu, a survey out Friday from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that nearly half of the nation fears that they or someone in their immediate family will contract the disease. Almost two-thirds say they are washing their hands more frequently, according to the survey. And one in four reports avoiding crowded spots such as sporting events, malls and public transportation.

Some are avoiding places and people linked to Mexico. The survey found 20 percent are avoiding contact with people who have recently traveled south of the border, while 17 percent say they are staying away from Mexican restaurants and grocery stores. Thisprecaution is not recommended by the government — or doctors. Neither is curtailing all travel and social events.

Ruben Andujo, a 45-year-old father from Manteca, Calif., has told his two children there will be no more sleepovers until further notice. He shops only during hours when the stores are less crowded. And he’s decided to eschew all unnecessary travel.

These responses are a type of social-distancing strategy , which experts recommend as a way of slowing the spread of outbreaks, said Dr. Andrew Garrett, director for planning and response at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. And they’re being used successfully in Mexico right now.

But Garrett said it may be a little premature to start taking these types of measures here. “It’s too early in the evolution of the outbreak to know whether this is an appropriate response or an overreaction. It’s certainly not going to hurt — although canceling sleepovers may make his children angry.

“Of course, if you live in a place where schools are closed because of the virus, then it makes no sense to let your children hang out with other kids.”

At this point, how far you go depends on how much you want to change your life — and whether there’s flu activity in your area, said Dr. Peter Katona, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And keep in mind that right now we’re not talking about a deadly disease,” Katona added. “If there isn’t a lot of activity in your area, this probably isn’t necessary.”

When it comes to travel plans, Katona said he wouldn’t cancel anything except for trips to Mexico. “I personally have trips coming up and I’m not planning on changing any of those,” he said.

Jessica Stombaugh has turned to disinfectants for protection. “I have started wiping my home and workplace down with Clorox wipes everyday,” she explained. “I also wiped down our vehicles. We have a bottle of hand sanitizer next to our front door and have to use it before touching anything in the house. Of course, the hand washing has doubled, but these are the extra little steps I've taken to ensure my family remains healthy.”

This make sense when you’re trying to prevent any type of infection, experts say. It’s common for people to spread the flu through droplets sneezed or coughed onto phones or other surfaces, Garrett said.

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But people shouldn’t go overboard with the disinfecting, said Katona. Keep in mind that the virus doesn’t persist outside the body for more than a few hours.

Saundra Trouslot, of Virginia Beach, Va., canceled her family’s trip to Mexico and Jamaica.  “And my husband is using a mask while traveling via airplane," she added.

Truslot’s husband may feel somewhat self-conscious wearing a face mask — just 5 percent of Americans have chosen to take that step, according to the Harvard survey. And experts say the trouble with face masks is most people don't wear them consistently enough to make a difference.

At this point, the smartest solution is the simplest: Wash your hands often.

“I think people get sort of numb to issue of hand washing,” said Dr. Lee Harrison, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “It’s very important.”

Another precaution it makes sense to to consider: scaling back on the social niceties such as handshakes and hugs. “Whoever developed the social nicety of handshaking didn’t understand a whole lot about infectious diseases,” Harrison said, adding that it’s very easy to come into contact with germs if you shake someone’s hand who might have recently coughed into that same hand.

Some Americans have developed a longer range plan. A registered nurse from Albuquerque, N.M., who asked not to be named because she worried that appearing alarmist might impact her job, said she’s ready for the worst.

“We have a 2-month-old granddaughter and have stockpiled formula and diapers for her,” said the 47-year-old grandmother. “We have also stockpiled over-the-counter medications, face masks, bottled water and food for at least a month."

Infections around the worldWhile you might not initially think that this situation is comparable to a hurricane or an earthquake in terms of an interruption of services, it could ultimately end up that way, Garrett said. Stocking up on supplies is a good policy in preparation for any type of emergency, he added, and now is as good a time as any.

Not everyone is convinced that the swine flu calls for disaster planning. Some think the media coverage and the nation’s response has been very much overblown.

“I am taking the normal precautions that I take every year during the cold and flu season,” said John Lohnes of San Francisco. “The H1N1 flu is just the newest variant. The media has blown this all out of proportion. Over 35,000 people die every year in the U.S. from the regular old flu and you don’t hear a peep.”

At the same time, there are some, like James Denk, who just want to disappear till the entire situation blows over. “I am going to go to my hunting cabin in western Wisconsin, 200 miles away from the city of Milwaukee where I live, and breathe in the fresh clean air and enjoy nature, and interact with people as little as possible until this goes away.”

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