Don’t waste anxiety on swine flu

Posted May 04, 2009, at 7:06 p.m.

Developed a little anxiety about the health of you and yours lately because of the swine flu threat? Good. Just don’t waste all of that angst on swine flu; save some of it for the stuff you really should worry about.

I say that because the chances any one of us is going to get nailed by swine flu, the H1NI virus, are right up there with our chances of being hit by lightning. I’m not saying don’t give this flu a thought, or fail to take reasonable precautions. I am saying that if you just do the basics — wash your hands frequently, cough into your sleeve and not your hands, stay away from people with fever and a cough — you have done pretty much all you can to avoid H1N1 infection and can stop worrying about it. Then you can take some of that leftover anxiety and use it for more important things.

For example, let’s say your house suffers from that delightful plague called teenagers, and you are worried about them contracting the H1N1 virus because swine flu seems to target teens. Here’s the checklist of other things I think you should worry about first regarding your teenagers, and if you get through this list, then worry about swine flu.

Are they driving? In the next year, very few American parents will get a call saying swine flu has killed their child, but thousands will get a call saying a car crash has. Car crashes are the most common causes of death of American teenagers, a tragedy far greater than swine flu that just doesn’t make headlines. Are your teens wearing seat belts? Most teen drivers wear seat belts initially, but many late teen male drivers do not. Are they driving with friends, or while talking or texting on cell phones? If so, they might as well be driving drunk. In other words, if your teens are driving, check in with them regularly about their driving habits before checking them for swine flu.

Have you checked with your teens recently about what’s worrying them in their lives, or asked them if they are having any trouble with depression or sadness? One in four teenagers has considered suicide, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for an American teenager. Worrying about whether your teens will get swine flu when you have not talked to them recently about what’s going on in their lives is, well, duh.

How about protecting them against other kinds of deadly infections? If you are buying your kids surgical masks but your teenage daughters did not have their shots against the HPV that causes cervical cancer, you have your priorities mask backward. Have your teenage sons and daughters had their vaccination against meningococcus, the deadly bacteria that cause most cases of bacterial meningitis in teens? How about their tetanus and diphtheria boosters?

How about another epidemic afflicting teenagers that just will not go away, that of teen pregnancy? Have you talked to your teenagers recently and regularly about sex, contraception and safe sex? Swine flu will put most teenagers out of commission for a week or two. A teenage pregnancy will put many young women out of high school, off their college track, and in a rut from which it will be hard for many of them to escape for years.

But don’t stop there; how about cigarette smoking? Are you a smoking parent worried about your teenagers contracting swine flu but forgetting they might contract cigarette addiction from you, because children are more likely to take up smoking if their parents smoke? If yes, don’t look to Mexico for a potential threat to you and them; look in the mirror.

Once you have worked through the list of things to worry about first for your children, you are not done. You then have to work on the list of things you should be doing to preserve your own health, and reduce threats to your own well-being, before you move on to swine flu phobia.

Bottom line; A little paranoia about keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy is a good thing. It would just be a shame to waste it all on swine flu.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region. He is also the interim CEO at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.

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