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They're back! A Poltergeist of the Viral Kind Returns

They're back! A Poltergeist of the Viral Kind Returns

Swine flu's sequel — coupled with other seasonal viruses — is ready to make an appearance.

As the headlines remind us, the H1N1 swine virus lurks in the shadows and never went away after its pandemic debut this spring. Chances are it's resting and taking on more virulent strength.

It's a scenario that has the makings for a doomsday hit: early signs of sickness and death; scientists scrambling to produce an antiviral vaccine before the next big wave; warnings of dire consequences, societal and economic disruption, including food distribution. Scary? Yes. Over the top? No.

“The best thing is to be prepared for the worst-case event,” Jill Hollingsworth, Food Marketing Institute's food safety head, told me. FMI is part of the Food and Agriculture Coordinating Council, one of many industry sectors working with the federal government in coordinating responses to emergencies such as a pandemic virus that is now the exclusive focus of the group, Hollingsworth said. The group just finished developing Q&A information that is industry-specific, such as what happens if an employee of a food manufacturing plant, restaurant or grocery store becomes infected with the H1N1 virus, a term the food industry prefers over “swine” to describe the virus since one can't get the virus by eating pork.

What makes this flu season different is there may be two different vaccines available — seasonal flu and swine flu. The H1N1 swine flu vaccine may be targeted to certain vulnerable populations. Hollingsworth said it's not clear how the H1N1 swine vaccine will be distributed or who will receive it first. So far the seed strain to make the vaccine has been slow growing. Vaccine trials are just beginning and vaccine safety has yet to be proved.

Food retailers' biggest concerns going into the season are the safety and health of their employees and keeping their doors open so consumers have access to food, drugs and other necessities, said Hollingsworth. Expect to see a reappearance of white masks. “If we start having problems in keeping enough employees healthy in stores to keep stores open, at that point in time, masks would be a good recommendation. It's that kind of scenario we are working on now to decide what advice to give retailers.”

While fear is in the unknown, it's important to focus on what we do know. As of July 24, the Centers for Disease Control reported 43,771 laboratory-identified cases of the new H1N1 virus and 302 deaths in the United States. However, CDC said it believes there have been well over a million cases of the new H1N1 virus so far and it's unusual for that kind of illness this time of year. The virus is contagious and fast spreading from human to human. It strikes healthy young adults. Two drugs — Tamiflu and Relenza — have shown to be effective against strains of swine flu.

The message for food retailers on the front lines is clear. Avoid paranoia, but be prepared with a full stock of flu medications and accurate customer information. Don't forget about the regular flu season, which could be out of the norm this year.

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