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Panama Swine Flu Outrage

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 12 May 2009 12:17
Swine Flu PanamaMy friend Kara was telling me a story. "So I'm on this flight to Panama and the woman next to me is coughing up a storm. She's convulsing and busting her lungs and no one's saying anything. With the swine flu and everything. So I put on my surgical mask and then the flight attendant..." This was where I stopped listening and asked who actually carries a surgical mask with them? "You know, try " I told her, "surgical masks only help people keep from spreading the disease. They don't protect against getting viruses because viruses are too small." Now generally I am the last person to consult when it comes to anything medicine-related. But with the recent flurry of swine flu and my shock at the amount of people with surgical masks, I did a little bit of research.

"What do you mean they don't protect against viruses?" Kara asked me. "They're surgical masks. Doctors wear them and stuff."

"They trap respiratory droplets. Large secretions, that's about it" I told her. "You should really get a N95 respirator which creates a seal around the nose and mouth and filters the air."

The phone line went dead.

Panama's one of the more recent countries to make the swine flu party list. Fifteen or so people have been confirmed with the flu in the Republic, all of whom are said to have some relationship with a small network of Mexico/USA-based infectants. The flu hasn't gotten out of control here yet, though the tropical climate and relative disorder when it comes to emergencies could pose a...hazard (no pun intended). Panama's Health Ministry was offering up free (normal) flu shots to locals beside a pineapple stand and I decided to stop by.

"Hello," I said, licking a cone of sorbet. "Sir, do you know what importance have the mask for the flu of the pigs?"

"Necessary," the man told me, muffled from behind his own mask. "If no, could be grave."

I once saw a show on Discovery Television about the spreading of bacteria, highlighted by a super-slow-motion video reel of a human sneeze. To not think the man's nostrils had been previously packed with excess germs would have been foolish, that's how overwhelming the sneeze was: a virtual sandstorm. Things like these tend to scare me, but only on a temporary scale. I'll spend the following hour washing my skin obsessively and trying not to touch anyone before the novel wears off and there I am eating food that's fallen on the floor again.

"That's revolting," someone like Kara would say, yet I always fall back on what's known as the "five second rule" which scientifically states, or at least I like to say it does, that if food falls on the ground, it may be safely eaten as long as it's picked up within five seconds. If questioned, I refer people to Wikipedia's definition of the rule, which offers up research, references and a useful little suggestion section where readers may continue on to read a similar article, such as the page dedicated to Cooties.
Swine Flu PanamaAccording to the CDC, there's not much conclusive evidence to support the use of surgical masks by the masses and Panama's not exactly in Armageddon mode, yet anyways. I wanted to tell this to the line of Panamanians waiting for the flu shot, all of whom were vying for masks the way hungry people do for food at Somali refugee camps. I also wanted to tell the story to Kara.

But in reality, had Kara been in Panama at the time, she'd have been lined up there too. The hysteria of it all harkened back to a time my good friend Greeny and I were in a cave in Chagres National Park (Panama). Our guide offered up surgical masks as a precaution against the fumes of bat guano and Greeny, as paranoid as he is, freaked out when, as a joke, I ripped his mask almost in half (see photo on left). The look in his eyes was one of pure fear and panic; come to think of it, not terribly different from the look I imagined on Kara's face, as her airplane neighbor's coughing started to sound eerily pig-like.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Rationing of Masks
written by Anna Notherthing , May 13, 2009
A little birdie tells me Arrocha is to start rationing face masks and that the price may get hiked as there has been a run on these in the Albrook/Clayton area where the UN are based. Maybe they know something we don't! My advice - stock up on everything, $600 at the very least.
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 07:00