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Pandemic Flu Kits

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

An influenza pandemic is bound to strike sooner or later, we've all been told. If you're not yet prepared for infectious apocalypse, marketers are offering shortcuts in the form of ready-made pan-flu emergency kits.

For example, a company called LifeSecure charges $39.95, shipping included, for a package of eight disposable N95 respirators, eight pairs of disposable gloves, two bottles each of hand sanitizer and surface disinfectant, and several eye shields, packs of tissues and biohazard-disposal bags. GlobalOptions Group offers a similar kit that even contains a nifty coverall with a hood and booties. The group plans to sell the kits ($21 each, minimum order 300 units) to companies that want to protect their employees -- and keep them reporting to work -- during an outbreak.

Breathe Calmly Among the kits' items, "that respirator and the hand sanitizers clearly are the most important," said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. If properly fitted to the face, N95s filter out 95 percent of airborne particles such as viruses. "When, in the hospital, we want the best available protection, we generally wear N95 respirators," said Schaffner. But he notes that basic surgical masks may be equally effective at preventing inhalation of flu viruses.

Sanitizers cleanse contaminated hands, which are the other major spreaders of influenza. Other items in the kits offer mainly psychological comfort, experts suggest. "When we take care of patients with influenza, we don't typically wear gloves. We don't wear eye protection," said Schaffner.

"The gown and get-up -- I think that's a waste of time," added Aaron Glatt, chief medical officer of New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y. "If you walk around in it all day, how is it different than your clothing?" It might spread a virus just as easily, he says.

Home Remedy Do-it-yourselfers can buy inexpensive hand sanitizer and order either respirators, which cost $1 to $2 each in bulk, or cheaper surgical masks, Schaffner points out. Playing hooky might also be worthwhile. "In a pandemic situation," Glatt said, "people who can work via computers probably should stay home. The last thing you want to do is congregate in a closed work area."

-- Ben Harder

© 2006 The Washington Post Company