By Carey Goldberg
The other day, I brought my feverish five-year-old son to the doctor, and in the waiting room, the receptionist gave me a surgical-type mask for him to wear. Woohoo! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was. In recent years, every time my children came in to this office for a check-up, they ended up coming down with a nasty virus a couple of days later. Now, finally, the practice was taking germ-containment in the waiting room more seriously.
Which brings me to the upside, meager as it may be, of swine flu. All around me, I see people treating flu with more respect. With the fear it deserves. Ramping up their efforts to prevent not just swine flu, but regular “seasonal” flu as well. That gladdens my heart. It also makes me feel less alone.
I’ve been terrified of flu since two winters ago. Within weeks of each other, two otherwise healthy children I knew died. It was a statistical fluke — nationwide, only about 100 children die each year of seasonal flu complications — but suddenly, every time one of my children coughed or spiked a minor fever, it meant mortal danger to me.
I struggled with my fear, and I tried to turn it into action: At my children’s school, I helped organize a flu vaccine clinic last year, in hopes of increasing what public health types call “herd immunity.” Health authorities recommend flu shots for almost all children. But only forty people came, and none bothered to sign up in advance.
Our school, Edward Devotion in Brookline, held another clinic early last month. Thanks to swine flu, this is a very different year. Three hundred people signed up in advance, paying $25 a shot to Flu Busters, the private company that handled the clinic. At least fifty more people had to be turned away. And mind you, this wasn’t a vaccine clinic for H1N1, which appears to be unusually dangerous for children; it was for the same old seasonal flu that people seemed to pooh-pooh last year.
Here’s what I hope: That in the wake of this swine flu season, it will become the norm for health authorities to offer flu vaccine clinics in the schools, where busy parents can drop in with their children to get the whole family immunized. That could help protect not just our children but the adults who make up the vast majority of the 36,000 people in the U.S. who die every year of flu, because schoolchildren are seen as the main “vectors” that spread the disease.
I know there’s no easy cure for my fear. I know we can’t keep our children perfectly safe — especially not from germs. But at least, when it comes to flu, we can all try a little harder.
Carey Goldberg is a former health and science reporter at The Boston Globe and co-author of the upcoming book "Three Wishes," a triple memoir about three girlfriends and one sperm donor, to be published in April.
This program aired on December 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.