Friday, September 26, 2008

Smoking and flu: Altogether worse for you

Hack, hack, wheeze...achoo? If you or someone you care about is a smoker, you may have noticed that flu season can be particularly trying on your health. But ever wonder why?

Researchers have long observed that smokers suffer much more from the flu and colds than nonsmokers. Symptoms that are mild in nonsmokers can make smokers very sick and even kill them. As if that wasn't scary enough, kids who breathe secondhand smoke also can become sicker when they have viral infections.

But until recently scientists didn't know why smokers have more exaggerated responses to viral infections. The most common idea was that smoking decreases a body’s ability to fight off the virus. However, it turns out the opposite might be true.

A recent study found that smokers don't get in trouble because they can't fight off the virus; they get in trouble because they overreact to it. Researchers from Yale University found that the immune systems of mice exposed to cigarette smoke (as little as two cigarettes a day for two weeks) overreacted when they were also exposed to a mimic of the flu virus. The immune systems of Mickey and his friends cleared the virus normally, but the overblown inflammation caused tissue damage, accelerated emphysema and airway scarring.

More research needs to be done to see if the same reaction is at work in humans. But until then, it's important to remember that we do know that smoking makes the symptoms of colds and flu worse. Along with all the other ways that smoking makes us sick, this is one more reason to squash that cigarette.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

Friday, September 19, 2008

Let history be our guide: Get ready

History reminds us that there are plenty of good reasons to prepare: smallpox, plague, yellow fever to name a few. The list is long and with new threats emerging, it continues to grow. But the past also reveals how people have identified those harmful things and prepared for and protected themselves against health threats.

Consider the ancient Greeks and Romans who recognized the need for improved sanitation and developed elaborate waterways and drains to safeguard their water supplies. Or the Council of Lyons that in 583 A.D. isolated disease-carrying lepers to keep the rest of the community healthy. Or, more recently, vaccine pioneers like Jonas Salk whose discovery protected generations from polio. All of these illustrate achievements we've made in identifying and getting ready for health threats.

And what about those "old" diseases like smallpox, leprosy, the plague and yellow fever? Well, the last natural case of someone getting smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. And as for the others, while not entirely gone from the planet, they no longer pose a threat like in the old days thanks to advances in vaccines and other disease control steps. Yellow fever can still rear its head in certain tropical regions of Africa and South America, but the last yellow fever epidemic in the United States took place in New Orleans in 1905. The last U.S. plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25. Since then, only about 10 to 15 people get the plague each year in the United States. Leprosy may conjure up images from the movie Ben-Hur, but the disease is on its way out. In Angola, Brazil, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania, where epidemics can still happen, the governments are committed to eliminating the disease .

As you can see, we've made lots of progress through the ages, but there's still a long way to go. New threats pop into the picture such as bioterrorism, bird flu, SARS and others. So let's let history be our guide: It’s a good idea to be prepared.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thoughts on personal preparedness: Getting ready for the worst

Today is Get Ready Day, APHA's observance aimed at helping Americans prepare themselves, their families and their communities for all hazards or disasters. Get Ready Day is held in conjunction with National Preparedness Month. Today's guest blog entry is by William F. Raub, PhD, science advisor to the U.S. secretary of health and human services.

No person is an island, as a modern-day John Donne might put it. Our everyday routines find us dependent to varying degrees not only upon family, neighbors and friends but also upon a complex web of services and supply chains that provide the electric power, water, food stuffs and other things that we have come to regard as necessities. These services and supplies are ubiquitous and so generally reliable that we regularly take them for granted. They enable lifestyles that Donne and his contemporaries scarcely could have imagined.

But in the aftermath of a disaster, we may become islands, for the web of services and supplies is far from immutable. A disaster can rend the web quickly and severely and leave it functionally compromised for hours, days and even weeks at a time. This, in turn, can leave us isolated from the supporting infrastructure to which we are accustomed. And, when this happens, how well we fare depends in large measure upon how well we have prepared to fend for ourselves.

Excellent guidance for personal preparedness is readily available. The Department of Homeland Security, through its Web site, provides a wealth of suggestions that are applicable to many types of disasters. The Department of Health and Human Services, through its Web site, complements this with detailed advice as to what individuals and families can do to maintain some semblance of normality during a four-, six-week or longer period when a severe influenza is ravaging their community. In particular, a severe influenza outbreak is likely to result in significant absenteeism in all walks of life — which for any given community could translate to about 25 percent of the work force on any given day for the duration of the local epidemic. Thus, services and supply chains, although not completely disabled, probably will be functioning well below their normal levels. Those who do not prepare for this will feel the consequences the most.

Personal preparedness benefits not only the individuals and families who do it but also their community. Every person who is self-reliant during an emergency means one fewer person seeking help from community agencies. This secondary benefit is noteworthy in that few, if any, communities are equipped to provide emergency services to more than a small fraction of their population at any one time.

As individuals, we cannot avoid a significant dependency upon governments, utilities and private-sector suppliers of goods and services, and we would be foolish to try. But we can avoid being dependent upon public agencies for every need that a disaster might create. And those who prepare themselves to the extent that their resources allow will help bring about a level of community resiliency that we are not likely to achieve any other way.

For more tips on how you can be better prepared, visit APHA's Get Ready campaign Web site.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Celebrate Get Ready Day on Sept. 16!

How prepared are you and your community for an emergency or disaster? Sponsored by APHA, Get Ready Day, on Tuesday, Sept. 16, is raising awareness about community preparedness. No matter where you live, there is always a possibility of a public health emergency, from earthquakes and hurricanes to infectious disease or terrorism.

Bring the Get Ready message to your community during Get Ready Day by holding an event. You'll find plenty of helpful free preparedness planning materials on the Get Ready fact sheet page or via the Red Cross. September is also National Preparedness Month, so check out this great information from Uncle Sam as well. If you hold a Get Ready event, drop us a line and let us know. We'd love to hear what you did.

Thanks to your help and Get Ready events held around the country, we'll all be a bit more prepared for the worst!

States using tax breaks to convince residents to prepare for hurricanes

So what exactly would it take for you to be prepared for a disaster? How about a big fat tax break?

Two U.S. states are hoping that giving residents a pass on taxes for emergency supplies will convince residents to get ready for hurricanes. This May, Virginia and Louisiana — both states that have recently been in the paths of storms — each held sales tax holidays in anticipation of hurricane seasons.

Virginia's Hurricane Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday, held from May 25-May 31, took place for the first time, but organizers are planning to hold it annually through 2012. As long as each hurricane preparedness article cost $60 or less, residents could fill their shopping carts with emergency supplies — such as batteries, flashlights, smoke detectors, bottled water, can openers and first aid kits — and not have to pay taxes on them. Portable generators and other power supplies were also tax-free if the sales price was $1,000 or less. Such supplies came in handy in September, as tropical storm Hanna drenched the state with rain and knocked out power in some regions.

Louisiana, still recovering from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, also held its first Hurricane Preparedness Tax Holiday from May 24-25. Louisiana residents were allowed to purchase a long list of items tax-free as long as the total was less than $1,500. Supplies that qualified for the tax break were many of the same items on the shopping list in Virginia, but also included storm shutter devices, carbon monoxide detectors and more. With Gustav hitting the state this August, the state's tax-free holiday came none too soon.

Virginia’s and Louisiana's tax-free holidays were both held for the first time this year, but they weren't the first states to cut residents such a break: In the aftermath of the 2004 hurricane season, Florida paved the way by creating a hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday. Unfortunately, the state legislature did not renew the tax holiday for 2008.

Whether or not you live in a hurricane-prone region, it makes sense to be prepared and to have emergency supplies on hand. And if your state is giving you an incentive to do so, it's a great idea to take advantage of it.

Friday, September 05, 2008

September is National Preparedness Month

Mandatory evacuations. Flooding. Widespread power outages. If you're still hemming and hawing about creating an emergency kit or assembling a family emergency plan, the recent arrival of Hurricane Gustav should serve as a not-so-friendly reminder.

The good news is there's no time like the present to start planning. And what better time to begin than National Preparedness Month?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Ready Campaign is sponsoring the fifth annual National Preparedness Month to educate the public about the importance of preparing for a public health emergency.

National, regional, state and local organizations will organize activities throughout September to encourage all Americans to take steps to prepare for emergencies and ask themselves, "Am I ready?" Among those marking the month is APHA, which is holding its second annual Get Ready Day Sept. 16.

The Ready Campaign and Citizen Corps are suggesting everyone start by making an emergency kit and a family preparedness plan; learn more about possible emergency situations at home, at work, at school and in the community; and become more involved community preparedness activities.

For some ideas about how you can get started on your emergency kit and stockpile, visit APHA's Get Ready: Set Your Clocks, Check Your Stocks Web pages. For a complete list of events during National Preparedness Month, visit

Even though Gustav is on its way out, storms Hannah and Ike are on the horizon. Take the time now to prepare for all emergencies.