AUTHOR: Matthew Harper
The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a story quoting from Dr Chris Del Mar, Professor of Public Health at Bond University who was speaking about influenza spread at the ‘GPs Down Under’ Conference on the Gold Coast. The piece emphasises the importance of social distancing and hygiene while downplaying the role of influenza vaccination in the fight against seasonal flu.
As one of the truly paranoid, I am both heartened and dismayed at this story. Heartened that the issue of personal action is emphasised, dismayed that the message of multi-vector prevention may have been damaged. In so much of our work, we help companies identify a range of protective strategies against likely events, and from my perspective, seasonal influenza is almost as likely as it comes.
Growing up, my mother and my grandmother were demons for hand washing. I never asked, but I am sure it stemmed from their germ laden workplaces where illness wasn’t an option. My mother taught in a high school, while my grandmother was one of the ladies who demonstrated new ways of cooking for the then Sutherland County Council. I grew up fanatical about washing my hands at all the traditional times and places.
Fast forward to 2016 and I found myself on the 8th floor of the Royal Darwin Hospital on my second day working with the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre. We were holding a morning tea to celebrate birthdays and the table was laden with treats of all varieties. Minutes into the start, a fat lazy blowfly landed on a tray of magnificent sausage rolls. Quickly and without fuss, the entire tray was whisked from the table and disposed of, the fly swatted and its body disposed of in an antiseptic wipe.
My non-hospital, southern state mind was aghast – why not just throw out the piece the fly landed on?
My answer came from an amazing researcher Dr Matthew Brearley. As one of the only other non-clinical people in the room, he was able to explain their actions in words I understood:
“Where are we?
How did the fly get here?
Well, it probably came through either emergency or reception, it would have then slowly made its way through corridors, wards, on people wherever. It’s probably been through the infectious diseases ward, children’s ward and wherever else.
Do you really want to eat that now?”
It was at that time I really started washing my hands to the standard that the team did. I started using the pump pack antiseptic after passing through every door, never shared a phone, and never shared a pen. I certainly never touched a door handle with bare hands without washing and I started researching disease spread from hand driers. I lined up to receive all my shots, took my medications and probably had my healthiest year ever.
We don’t have the figures for the effective nature of the current vaccination for seasonal influenza, but denigrating its performance isn’t a logical solution. Influenza protection, like so much else in life and business is about building prevention layers, and having a good plan for dealing with the unexpected.