A swine flu pandemic isn't a "foregone conclusion," according to the new alert level issued yesterday by the World Health Organization. But things are starting to get a little scary. Cue the travel warnings.

The United States said not to head south of the border. The European Union said stay away from the United States. Anyone flying from North America to Hong Kong will have his temperature taken upon arrival.

While the death toll in Mexico is up to 152, nobody has yet died stateside. As for Harris County, there hasn't been a single confirmed case.

So for a more dramatic story, Hair Balls decided to swing over to the Department of Worst-Case Scenarios with Professor Vivian Ho, who chairs the Baker Institute of Health Economics at Rice University.

Ho has been enthused by the U.S. government's decision to declare a public health emergency, because it frees up funds to try new treatments (there's no vaccine for swine flu). That's good, because if swine flu spreads, it could mutate and become deadly. There have only been 50 reported cases here so far, as opposed to more than 1,600 in Mexico.

Revenge Of The Swine (And The Obsessive Hand-Washers)

Ho says viruses are hard to predict, so there's no telling whether things will calm down in a couple of weeks or become a full-fledged lethal outbreak. If the latter occurs, people would flock to the emergency rooms -- and that's where Houston especially would be in serious trouble.

"Our emergency rooms are already operating at capacity because of the high numbers of uninsured people, and that's going to be the first point of contact for many of these people," Ho says. "Do we have enough infrastructure to treat these people as quickly as possible? I think it's going to be a real strain on the health-care system. ... It would be difficult."

We've come a long way in terms of preparedness since the days of the Avian Flu, Ho says. But back then the country was enjoying a stretch of sunny prosperity. This time around, the economy might not be able to bounce back from a big disease scare.

"Economic recovery depends on confidence, and this would be an additional blow," Ho says. "This could shut down trade for a few weeks. But there are a lot of businesses that are right on the [brink], and that's the difference between staying in business and going under."

Kathy Barton of the Houston Department of Health and Human Services says people have so far kept their cool. There hasn't been a big rush to the hospitals.

For those considering a freak-out: a little bit of common sense would go a long way toward keeping you healthy (and, by extension, the rest of us). Here are some tips.

-- Houston isn't about to go all Mexico City and shutter its schools or ban public gatherings.

"If you're sick, stay home. If your children are sick, keep them home," Barton says.

-- Try for good personal hygiene. Wash your hands a lot. Or use sanitizer. Don't pick your nose. Keep your fingers off your face.

-- Be a team player when coughing or sneezing in public. And respect personal space--Barton says a distance of six feet is recommended for swine flu; "That means not getting in anyone's face."

-- Your social etiquette might need a little work.

"Let's just give a break on this hand-shake thing," Barton says. "Do a fist-bump or elbow-bump or something. And don't kiss in social greetings -- that's guaranteed transmission. Save those kisses for your kids and for your spouse."

-- As for the trend in surgical masks that has recently swept Mexico City: bad news. Wear 'em if you're sick; they're useless if you're not.

-- And you can't catch swine flu from eating pork.

Rest assured that if a case is confirmed, it'll be all over the media almost immediately. Houstonhealth.org has swine flu updates every day at 3pm and a FAQ on symptoms and prevention.

Here is some raw video from Mexico City shot after the outbreak, by the friend of a Press staffer.

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