Monday, June 22, 2009

Typhoid Mary, Calamity Jane, Mustang Sally, and Swine Flu Pat

I'm generally a skeptic of whatever attitude happens to occupy more than two cable news networks at a time.  Americans deciding their votes on how much they disapprove of Bill Clinton's personal life?  Like the existence of god, or bisexuality, it's easy to assert, difficult to prove.  U.S. in a existential showdown with radical Islamists?  My money's on the guys with the F-18s to cover the spread over the guys living in caves.  Democrats oppose Bush foreign policy at their peril?  This was prescient for about eighteen minutes, then lurched like a zombie for years after it had demonstrably ceased to be true.  Barack Obama's election will change forever the way Americans govern themselves?  Hmm, seems that the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else just fine, thank you very much, and that the policy-machine is reacting to, say, universal health care exactly like it did in 1948, 1961, 1969, 1977, and 1994 (indeed, the broad support for the inclusion of a public option makes DC reflexive rejection of it all the starker).

None of this comes close to my reflexive, unshakable indifference to whatever is the alarmist media's public health menace du jour.  The summer of the shark; poisoned Halloween candy... they're usually either ludicrously overblown, or else complete bullshit.  It's hard to tell which is the case when the news media's pack mentality leads them to instances of imagined public contagion.  The major outlets appear to have internalized so thoroughly the lessons learned from being late to recognize AIDS in the 70s and 80s that a potential outbreak---any potential outbreak, no matter how unlikely---becomes a matter of urgent journalistic concern.  The systematic overreaction, while stemming from an admirable preference for the ounce-of-prevention in service of the news media's public mission to inform the public, nevertheless has the unintended effect distorting that very public opinion they're trying to clarify.

I'm just kidding, of course.  Journalists don't give a shit about trying to inform or educate the public; they're just looking for something scary.  That's why the third rule of journalism (after "if it bleeds, it leads" and "if it's dead, we're live") is never merely to give the name for a health risk when a spooky foreign name will equally suffice.  Hence, African killer bees, Asian bird flu, West Nile virus, and now Mexican swine flu.  You know what they all have in common, over and above being evocative of tasty international cuisine?  None of them han't never killed nobody, but somehow they absolutely paralyze CNN et al. with excitement over being able to pimp a non-story for two wee---er, I mean of course genuine concern for public health.  

But Pat, you're saying, you live in Germany now, a country that's reasonably sensible when it comes to public health concerns.  Surely, however, this must be an uniquely American phenomenon that you're now free from!  And would that it were so.  However, when I was about two hours deep over the Atlantic, our flight crew alerted us that the Gesundheitsamt had requested that we all undergo a swine flu test.  (Fortunately---and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up---the test was multiple choice.  I passed, as the wrong answers were easily spotted:  "Fever," "Vomiting, "All of the Above," "Swine-flu-ish," "Mexico," and any country spelled with one of those n-tilde things.)  Exiting the plane was like being an extra in The Hot Zone, as dozens of medical staff in white long-sleeved uniforms and facemasks took our surveys and triaged anyone feeling less than 100% to some darkened hallway where, one assumed, they were either quickly euthenized, or else given free medical care and cannabis and permitted to surf Craigslist casual encounters for fetishists into latex gloves and paper masks.  

Well, I've read Michael Pollan's book; if bad American habits are influencing the world's diet, why not destroy their sane public practices and peace of mind, too?  And so once I was let out into the concourse, I put it out of mind.  I had to steel myself for passport control, after all, and I wasn't sure if I had to get my checked luggage to port through customs, and my German wasn't really strong enough to decipher the helpful posted signs.  

So three days later, I had completely forgotten the episode when I returned from a lengthy tour in the city to discover a telephone message left at the front desk for my attention asking me to please rufen Sie Frau Schneider an.  It was quite late when I returned, so I waited to call the next day from the house phone, when I had the quite thrilling experience of speaking with the last German government official not to have learned fluent English.  My own German was good enough to ask how someone's day has gone or to ask if the soup is vegetarian, but it failed at the specialized task to which it was being put, so I begged off to grab the young woman at the front desk.  The hotel clerk, a lovely and helpful woman who's probably ten years younger than I am, for god's sake, spoke into the phone in short, competent German (of which I understand almost nothing) and nodded for perhaps a minute before informing me, in a voice that was perhaps too chipper for the occasion, that someone on my flight had tested positive for the H1N1 virus, commonly known as "the piggy flu."  I was now, in the epidemiology parlance, a vector.

Thus began the interrogation about any symptoms I might have had, mediated by the increasingly reluctant translator I'd dragooned from the front desk.  It turns out swine flu has remarkably non-specific symptoms, and apparently even most infected people report very minor effects from the disease, so its diagnosis is an imprecise business.  Which would have made answering the questions I was being asked difficult, had they not been rendered in fact impossible by the fact that I was at that moment in the middle of a rather stern hangover.  Making the good-faith effort to immerse myself in my adopted city's organic nighttime cultural activities, I had signed up for what the locals call das Pub-Crawl.  (Hey, I never pretended that I was s-a-m-r-t.)  One was required to pay a small handful of euros for the privilege of taking part, but in exchange each beer one purchased over the course of the night was accompanied by a complimentary shot of Jaegermeister!  ("Complimentary" has several meanings, such as "displaying one's genial nature," "highlighting one's good side," or "without cost, downside, or drawback," none of which are at all appropriate in that particular sentence.)  So my answers were of a rather dim tint.

I've probably been mocking, even scornful, of the medical profession in the past, but I'm now in a position where I appreciate the American doctor, or at least their professional obligations and privileges.  If you don't follow my meaning, just imagine an extended conversation with your GP, and then imagine that instead of having that chat under the blanket of doctor-patient confidentiality, having it instead with the very attractive, and as far as you can tell very chatty, front desk clerk.  Here's your phone receiver back; it turns out you've been exposed to swine flu!  Possibly by contact as casual as sharing a telephone receiver with an infected person!  I'm... I'm quite sorry.  What's that? avoid physical contact for a week, sure.  Um, well, I did have ... you might call it physical contact with somebody.  Hm?  No, um... maybe more than that.  Um, the other night.  With, uh, with a girl, I don't exactly recall her name but she was staying here...  Right.  Right, I suppose that you did see us....  Um... yes, the, erm, the "chubby girl." 

I don't care how bad a prostate exam is, at least you don't spend the whole ordeal imagining your doc discussing the particularly fascinating results in your case with every pretty woman who works in the building.   

Well, after a week, generally asymptomatic, spent within a walking, voluntary quarantine, I'm permitted to relax and can even shake someone's hand again.  The upside of being OCD during all of this is that I probably washed my hands more than even the most risk-averse guidelines would recommend.  Of course, if by the time I return to the States we haven't gotten over our national love affair with xenophobia, I won't be able to laugh it off quite so blithely when some asinine politician stereotypes Mexican immigrants as germ-ridden menaces, crossing the border only to spread their foreign plagues upon unsuspecting native-born Americans.  Sure, Stephen Colbert's audience will laugh at the prospect, but I'll know the dark truth, that it's exactly how it happens.

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