Panic over swine flu seems to be spreading the airwaves, and so I thought I would blog on it.
So here are my suggestions. But note that I'm not an expert, just someone reading what the health authorities are saying, so don't take it as gospel! On the other hand, I've already started receiving the inevitable conspiracy theory emails with all sorts of weird and wonderful advice on this subject, so I think it is important!
The medical threat: public health authorities are saying don't panic!
The first and most obvious point to make is: don't panic! It clearly is spreading rapidly. But the evidence on whether or not it is worse than any other type of flu is at best ambivalent - there have been a possible 150 or so deaths in Mexico. But all of the cases in the US at the time of writing seem to have proved mild and those infected have recovered.
Things can change quickly though. So from a public health perspective, Governments are working on the precautionary principle (ie better to be safe than sorry) - but it may turn out not to be as big a deal as some are suggesting. All the same, the flu (of any variety) can and does kill, and there isn't a vaccine yet for those particularly at risk. And the possibility of a flu pandemic has been the nightmare of health officials for years now, so it is sensible to take precautions.
The first thing to note is that threats like this are timely reminders to get our own house in order - including going to confession if necessary!
And we should be considering praying and fasting to avert this threat, for the souls of those who have died in Mexico, and for the return to the Church of those who may be affected by it.
Don't infect others!
Over at Fr Z there has been an interesting discussion going on about communion in times of epidemic, and I thought I'd summarise a few key points that I've drawn out of it.
The first seems to me obvious, but I know not everyone agrees (including or perhaps especially priests from past experience!) - but my view is that if you are sick with something that may be the flu (or anything else infectious for that matter), don't go to mass and infect everyone else. You might be able to struggle on, but other people with weaker immune systems may suffer more severely if they catch it from you. And even if it's not flu you are passing on, people weakened by other illnesses are always a high risk group when flu does hit.
Illness (and especially being infectious) is generally a sufficient cause not to attend mass. If you want to receive or make your confession, call your priest and see what he advises or can arrange. And if your priest can't say mass for a few days, be understanding!
Indeed, we may yet get to the point, as in Mexico, where public gatherings have to be prohibited, and all masses cancelled.
Secondly, if you are sick, the best advice seems to be to go to a doctor early and get the drug to fight it - the drugs are only effective if taken early enough, and it is not clear that deaths will be restricted to the standard 'at risk' groups. And the medication does seem to reduce infectiousness.
Thirdly use tissues or a handkerchief to cover your mouth if you do cough. Not every cough is infectious - it may be asthma or hayfever for example. But do everyone a favour and don't feed our paranoia, just in case you have misdiagnosed the cause of your cough! And if you can't help being around others (such as your family) try and avoid everyone catching it...
Fourthly, practice good hygiene, especially washing of hands after you've been anywhere that other people might have touched.
Fifthly, and this is the subject of some considerable debate over at Fr Z, we may get to the point where people should refrain from communicating (and if those with colds etc do insist on going to mass anyway, they should definitely think about this). One imagines and hopes that priests will be being extra careful at the moment, but there is a reality that transmission via saliva or hand contact is a risk. But remember that a spiritual communion is always fine - and that many saints went for months and even years without access to the Mass or sacraments!
Looking out for others
If an epidemic does hit, we should probably also be extra vigilant in noting absences from mass, and checking whether the sick need any help!
And on that, Pope Benedict XVI beatified a saint particularly appropriate for such times a few days ago, St Bernardo Tolomei, founder of the Olivetan branch of the Benedictines in the fourteenth century. The saint died after contracting the plague as a result of helping the sick.