Laurie Garrett, Swine Flu, and Me: I Survived H1N1. It Wasn't That Bad.

This week in NEWSWEEK, writer Laurie Garrett has a gripping account of being sick with swine flu. Not only is Garrett a flu expert, having written The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Penguin 1995) and a Newsweek cover story on the H1N1 epidemic, she's a senior fellow on the Council for Foreign Relations and has been following H1N1 from the start.

And yet, Laurie Garrett got swine flu. And while I am not nearly the authority she is on the subject, I am a health editor who's been paying close attention to H1N1. And yet, last week, I got swine flu too.

At least, I think I did. Like Garrett, I can't know for sure—doctors aren't testing for H1N1 anymore because it's so common. Right now, if you have the flu, it's a safe bet that you're carrying H1N1, since seasonal flu is not yet, well, seasonal. And since I've never actually had the flu, I can't say for sure if my congestion, GI distress, fever, sneezing and coughing were, in fact, flu-like symptoms. But they were close enough to what I'd read about H1N1 to take Thursday off, just in case.

At the peak of my misery, feeling a bit sorry for myself and disconnected from the outside world, I posted to my Twitter account: "I have swine flu, y'all."

Apparently, that 23 character missive set off a round of panic at the NEWSWEEK offices. Soon after, my cubemates posted their own nervous Twitters, worried about their exposure to my illness. An hour later I received a phone call from Pop Vox blogger Sarah Ball (who sits directly to my left), making a perfunctory inquiry about my health before asking if I was officially diagnosed with H1N1. She was calling, she said, on behalf of about a dozen staffers who were freaking out, feeling one another's foreheads for fever, and suddenly realizing that they, too, felt a little under the weather. When I returned on Friday, colleagues walked a wide berth to avoid my cube and only half-jokingly called me "Typhoid Mary." Just today, a colleague from Detroit called to check in on me—she had heard reports that I was in an iron lung somewhere in the bowels of the CDC.

In fact, my alleged swine-flu experience was pretty easy: after an initial two days of being uncomfortable, I suffered through congestion all through the weekend, but am almost back to normal. In fact, my symptoms were so mild that I considered being brave and working through what felt only like a slight inconvenience. (As it turns out, I was mentally shot all weekend; turns out this fatigue symptom is no joke. I think my insistence that I could work through my illness comes from my family's superstrict sick-day policy, wherein if you weren't bleeding out of your eyeballs you were going to school.)

Swine-flu hysteria has been humming just below the surface of mainstream media since this new strain of H1N1 broke out in Mexico this April. So for almost six months, we've been hearing about how H1N1 could change everything; how colleges were on alert and businesses planning for much of the staff to be missing. No wonder all my co-workers were expecting the worst. But honestly? H1N1—and this is the scientific categorization, not my anecdotal one—is a mild virus. So if you get sick, chances are won't get that sick unless you're very young, very old, and have a compromised immune system. (Garrett and I had illnesses on both ends of the spectrum: she was out for six days with "semi-delirium, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, and stomach twisting.")

Here's the tricky part: while swine flu in individuals is not a big deal, its cumulative affect could be scary. Let's assume that it's no more or less deadly than the seasonal flu, which kills 1 out of 5,000 people. It is, however, more contagious, meaning there will be more people infected, which will increase the total number of people dying. There's also the fear that overwhelmed medical systems will prevent doctors and hospitals from treating those who are really sick, leading to further preventable deaths.

And since the expectations are that swine flu mimics the plague, many infected people may trudge into the office, determined to work through their sniffles and fatigue. Don't. Like I said, this virus spreads quickly, and while most people will be relatively fine, keeping others from getting sick will prevent a larger cumulative public-health crisis.

Know the symptoms of H1N1. If enough vaccines are available, inoculate yourself. If you're feeling flu-ish, stay home. And if your coworker comes down with swine flu, try not to make little crucifixes with your fingers when she passes you in the hall after she returns from sick leave.

That's just hurtful.

Laurie Garrett, Swine Flu, and Me: I Survived H1N1. It Wasn't That Bad. | News