May 4, 2009 / 4:56 AM / in 10 years

WITNESS: The flu scoop that scared me

Maggie Fox is health and science editor for Reuters, leading a global team of correspondents. Covering health for 15 years at Reuters, she was before that an international correspondent in countries from Lebanon to Bosnia. Since 2003 she has also been tasked to monitor avian influenza and other pandemic threats.

Maggie Fox (r) with former U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding, pictured in Washington in February 2008. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

By Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Normally a pre-dawn call with the offer of a scoop gets a journalist’s adrenaline pumping. I had always laughed at how we run toward things everyone else runs away from — car bombs, riots, disease outbreaks.

But this was sad and unwelcome news.

I had a two-hour beat on my competitors with news a toddler had become the first person in the United States to die of the new flu that had already killed people in Mexico. And I had two hours to get my eight-year-old daughter to school.

Her school, with a bilingual curriculum, has close ties to Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.

I had two hours to worry about whether I was putting my child in harm’s way by simply taking her to school.

I typed out the news alert on my laptop while my daughter brushed her teeth; buttered toast for breakfast while coordinating with colleagues on my cellphone.

There is a very small and intimate community of journalists who follow flu — most of us date back to the early days of the outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza, first in Hong Kong in 1997 and later, after its resurgence in 2003.

We have all heard the dire scenarios — predictions of widespread economic unrest, 40-percent absence rates from work, interruptions in transportation and supply chains. We’ve written countless times about when schools should be closed.

For more than a week already I had been asking detailed questions about this new strain of H1N1 swine flu, first identified in children in southern California and Texas. Why was it killing people in Mexico but, seemingly, nowhere else?

I had dutifully quoted officials who repeated over and over that it was likely to kill people in the United States.

As we walked to school my daughter slipped her hand casually into mine. How was the mother of that toddler feeling right now, I wondered.

Hours in flu conferences where scientists debate whether influenza virus is airborne, how common it is to pick it up on the fingers, and if face masks are a waste of time, have made me what some people might call vigilant, and others might call paranoid.

My daughter carries hand sanitizer everywhere. One teacher was stunned a few years ago when I showed up with a case of the stuff, in bubble gum and grape scents, and asked if she’d put it on every table. I later saw it wedged at the top of a supply cabinet.

Just the night before I had talked to her Brownie troop about hand hygiene, and was impressed at how much the little girls already knew about germs and swine flu. Anyone who has let drop an unflattering comment about an acquaintance knows that if you want to spread information quickly, tell an eight year old.

But would hand sanitizer be enough?

As soon as I pushed the button on my little scoop about the dead child, every parent who got that news would be asking the same questions I was. Is there an infected child at my child’s school? My child’s teachers use antiseptic wipes obsessively, but what about other teachers?

Now I was asking the same questions that as a health journalist I answer for everyone else. Will I get it? Will my daughter get it? Can I protect her?

DISCRIMINATION

Reuters has been examining potential discrimination around the outbreak. When SARS spread around the world in 2003, Chinese people faced discrimination across Asia, Europe and Canada. Already radio talk show hosts were demanding closure of the border — even though experts have long agreed it would be at best useless, with any disease just a plane ride away from anywhere.

As I dropped my daughter off that morning, she rushed to embrace her best friend. The friend’s mother was chatting about their recent trip — yes, to Cancun, in Mexico.

Would I succumb to the instincts that drive discrimination? I was relieved to be able to calmly join the other parents — one a pediatrician — as they discussed incubation periods for influenza and agreed that any child who had not already been sick was unlikely to be infectious at this point.

I kissed my daughter goodbye, reminded her to use hand sanitizer, and headed to work. There, I sprayed Lysol on my desk. You can never be sure.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, Editing by Frances Kerry and Sara Ledwith

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