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The Pale Horseman Comes to Town



Last Thursday afternoon as I was doing some paperwork, one of my teaching partners ran into our office, and breathlessly asked, “Have you heard the news?” From the clueless look on my face, she assumed that I had no idea what she was talking about. “School is closing tomorrow, and won’t open again for five days! Some students have the Swine Flu and have been taken to the hospital…and one student has died!” That the flu could have arrived here was not all that shocking. Hell, it was a world-wide problem; but the idea that someone had actually died of the disease was hard to believe. Was it really true, or was this just the Thai rumor mill at work? I needed to separate fact from fiction.

Fact: Yes! Our school would be closing for five days! Unfortunately, although there would be no classes during that time, all of us teachers were required to be here as usual. Gee, so much for protecting our health!

Fact: One student had indeed died, and he did have Swine Flu. It seemed though that this boy had other medical problems that resulted in him having a weakened immune system. That apparently left his body defenseless to fight off the virus. In any case it was a tragedy.

Fact: A number of our students were currently hospitalized with Swine Flu. They had recently been to Bangkok to take a test, and were now quite ill.

The school administration did the sensible thing and sent the students home. Why five days? I have no idea of what the incubation period is for this strain of flu, but hopefully the powers that be here didn’t just pick that number out of a hat. Hey, this is Thailand, and one can never be certain why people do anything!

Meanwhile, we were told to roll up our sleeves and start scrubbing down every inch of the school, from top to bottom. Were we issued rubber gloves? Were we given disinfectant solution? Of course not! What we were given were brooms and buckets. Oh, that will sterilize everything! Luckily my office is a testament to clean living, so not much work was required.

Fast forward to yesterday when classes resumed. Many parents were still reluctant to send their children to school. I would say that attendance was down by 25%. Looking around, a stranger might assume that that he had wondered into a convention of thieves. Practically everyone, students and teachers alike were wearing masks….except me naturally. “Why aren’t you wearing a mask” everyone kept asking me all day long. “Because what you are wearing will not prevent coming down with the flu” I answered. People stared at me as if I were crazy. “But you need to wear a mask” they cried! “No I didn’t” I calmly replied, “and this is why”. My explanation fell on uncomprehending ears, which is not surprising, since even educated Thais are not noted for having a strong scientific background.

Warning!!! Science content ahead!!! First of all, there are masks, and then there are respirators. What you see the Thais wearing are either dust masks or surgical style masks made of cloth. Neither one is effective at keeping out viruses. If worn properly, which most people don’t, they may keep out bacteria, but not viruses. Viruses are extremely tiny. They will pass right through these types of masks as if they weren’t there. If you think that old Sawadee2000 is making this up, go the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in Atlanta’s website and see what they have to say about these types of masks.

''We don't want to say, 'Don't use it,' but don't expect to be protected if you do use it. That's a tough public health message to get out," said Dr. Donald Burke, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University. ''Respiratory protection is the last resort to control infectious spread. Surgical masks aren't designed to block tiny airborne particles, just larger ones. These type of masks are not very effective. They tend to get damp after about a half an hour. And they really don't prevent transmission of the virus”.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the mass wearing of surgical face masks would do little to reduce the rate of infection in the event of an influenza pandemic. The CDC says to date little research exists which demonstrates the effectiveness of face masks during an influenza pandemic and it is quite possible that they are useless in stopping infection from occurring. Dr. Michael Bell, an infection control expert at CDC says face masks are not designed to protect people from breathing in very small particles, such as viruses.”

What you really need to keep out viruses are respirators. Something called an N95 respirator may be effective in preventing transmission of the flu virus, but even that has not been proven.

So all around me I see folks wearing these flimsy pieces of cloth…and not even wearing those correctly! For these to do anything useful, they need to fit snuggly. Everyone I see has them on loosely, with large gaps that leaves them exposed to every sneeze and cough they may encounter. These things are also are designed for a single use only. They need to be disposed of daily and a fresh one worn. What are the odds of anyone doing that?

On a much more positive note, my school has finally discovered the virtues of soap! Go into a Thai restroom and take a look around. Count yourself lucky if you discover soap. Not that there is any lack of soap in Thailand. Take a stroll down the aisle at Big C and you will find a vast selection of soap. What Thais do with the stuff is a mystery. I assume they use it when taking a shower. But near a toilet, where you would hope some to be? Not likely. That was the case here where although there have always been posters in the restroom about the necessity of hand washing, there has never been even a sliver of soap. Now, miracle of miracles, liquid soap dispensers have sprouted everywhere like mushrooms! I am astonished at the sight of teenaged boys scrubbing up as though they were about to perform surgery…and lets face it boys all around the world are not always very concerned with hygiene. If anything can help stop the spread of disease, it is the practice of frequent hand washing, so this is indeed a hopeful development. I do hope that this current epidemic will run its course soon.

On a more disturbing note, but one that’s typically Thai, the price of hand sanitizer has quadrupled in the past week. A tiny bottle of the stuff which went for 30 baht at 7-11 now sells for 125 baht! So much for serving the public in time of crisis. Welcome to Thailand! Let the Pale Rider go forth across the land. I’m sure Somchai and his enterprising brethren will make him welcome. I wonder if the Grim Reaper need a new set of robes…or perhaps some bargains on gemstones.

Stickman's thoughts:

It has been amusing watching the typical local knee jerk reaction to this pandemic. All about trying to contain it and no thought to actually managing it.