Monday, November 9, 2009

In a good mood? Don't read this

H1N1 flu. The economic recession. Health reform. Just a few issues described as “late-breaking” in a Monday morning session on recent developments affecting public health. Though I can think of a few more words to describe the topics: Huge, overwhelming, scary, exciting, nerve-wracking, stressful, confusing…..

“Stressful” would be a good way to describe Stephen Ostroff’s presentation on H1N1 flu trends in Pennsylvania. The state’s physician general, Ostroff said between 7,000 and 8,000 cases of H1N1 flu are being reported to state health officials each week, constituting an “unprecedented” fall wave of the virus. In fact, instead of describing the surge of flu cases as a “wave,” Ostroff called it the H1N1 “fall tsunami.” Luckily, Ostroff said H1N1 doesn’t seem to be any more virulent than regular seasonal flu, though it does differ in its magnitude of transmission and in the age groups most affected, mostly young people ages 5 to 19. (Squirt. Sorry, that was me. Just applying more hand sanitizer.)

Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, put a bit of a damper on this blogger’s elation over the passage of Saturday’s national health reform bill. Woolhandler predicted that millions of Americans would still go uninsured even if the health reform bill goes into effect, noting research recently published in the American Journal of Public Health that found that 45,000 Americans die every year due to a lack of health insurance. She urged attendees to continue the call for real universal health care, cautioning them to watch carefully as health reform continues its way through the halls of Congress.

“It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the power of the insurance industry,” she said.

Carolyn Cannuscio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reported on health and the economic recession, eliciting a good few chuckles from the crowd as she highlighted businesses that haven’t seemed to suffer: the makers of the canned, inexpensive meat Spam, condom makers and candy sellers. (Perhaps, she said, candy sales can be explained because people are self-medicating?) But with the nation’s unemployment rate above 10 percent, it’s certainly not all laughs. Unemployment or the stress of possibly losing one’s job puts a heavy strain on people’s mental health and well-being, as does the horrific event of losing one’s home to foreclosure, she said. Plus, the research is clear: Lower incomes often lead to greater health risks.

“Are we doing our best to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy,” Cannuscio asked.

Are you?

— K.K.

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