As an English teacher at a 6,000-strong middle school in the northwest of Hunan province, I come into contact with several hundred students a day. My course load puts me in front of roughly 850 students a week. In a school as cramped as mine, the students and staff are constantly breathing each other’s germs. As such, when I started to get a deep-lung cough and run a mild fever, I should have known it was only a matter of time before the surgical-mask brigade descended on our school.
Tuesday, October 26th, after about a week of classrooms full of hacking, coughing, sniffling teenagers, I walked into my first period to find 40% of my class wearing surgical masks. The next day, the school closed down for a week due to the diagnosis of swine flu in several students and one teacher. That’s right: we got the piggy.
H1N1 has become a pandemic, so much so that it’s now considered to be “the dominant flu strain in the world today,” according to an article at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The article gives a good overview of the implications and complications of swine flu and the panic surrounding it. The US government’s website about the flu provides statistical evidence that backs up the RFE/RL article. The World Health Organization has an FAQ about the pandemic.
Reading through the cautious language, one can see that all three of these sources confirm the argument that swine flu isn’t that big of a deal. As far as typical mortality rates go, H1N1 has killed less people than seasonal flu. Regardless of the fact that it affects “young and healthy people,” as the catchphrase goes, most of the people hospitalized for the swine flu (“over half” on the WHO website and “about 70 percent” on flu.gov) had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to serious infection, such as asthma and diabetes. The most recommended treatment for non-severe H1N1 symptoms is bed-rest and lots of fluids. This is your typical flu season fare.
All organizations recommend a week at home at the onset of symptoms. The opinions differ on the surgical masks, however. RFE/RL says wearing one all day does nothing but render the mask useless. The US government says infected people should wear them to protect the people they share a space with. I say it doesn’t really do you any good when half the kids wearing them take them off five minutes into class out of irritation or boredom.
Over the week we had off of school, I was given permission from my school to travel, and I went to visit a friend who is teaching in Shaanxi province. Regardless of my being fever-free for five days, and the fact that the students would be gone for the weekend anyway (as her school is not a boarding school), I was denied permission to stay at her apartment on campus, even for the weekend evenings. When I returned to my school the day before classes resumed, everyone was checked at the gate for signs of a fever.
As for myself, I’m pretty sure I did have H1N1. I had a mild fever (easily broken with a few acetaminophen I brought with me from home), and a productive cough (probably due to the flu exacerbating my dormant bronchitis from years of smoking). I taught for a few days and then as I started to feel better, school got cancelled. Hey, maybe I gave my students H1N1. But I had to have gotten it from somewhere…