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Can a Mop Fight Swine Flu? Docs Say Probably Not

Can a Mop Fight Swine Flu? Docs Say Probably Not

In this April 27, 2009 file photo, workers disinfect a classroom at Byron P. Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Associated Press/AP Online

May 21, 2009

NEW YORK — In scores of schools across the United States, the mop has been the weapon of choice in the fight against swine flu.

When hundreds of children fell ill with the virus at a Queens high school last month, authorities promptly closed the building and spent days disinfecting desks and tables and running the ventilation system on full blast.

Alarmed union officials called for the same response – evacuation and a vigorous scrub-down – when flu cases popped up this week at the city’s massive jail complex on Rikers Island.

But while such cleansing efforts are undoubtedly reassuring to the public, they probably do little to control the spread of the disease, health experts said.

“It never hurts to be cleaner,” said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, “but the main way flu spreads is people not covering their mouth or nose when they cough or sneeze.”

As frightening as it can be, the influenza virus is not a hardy one. Once it leaves the body of an infected person, it usually dies within a few hours.

Any surface left alone for 24 hours is unlikely to have influenza, said Dr. Paul Biddinger, associate director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Plus, you can wipe down the surfaces today, and then someone comes in coughing and sneezing and you’re infected again,” he said. “Unless you are willing every hour and every day to wipe down surfaces, it isn’t going to do much good.”

The mop’s relative ineffectiveness in halting the spread of the swine flu virus is illustrative of a larger problem facing public health authorities trying to contain the infection: Outside of developing a vaccine, there isn’t much that can be done to halt the bug’s spread.

Authorities have cautioned doctors against trying to ward off infection by prescribing antivirals such as Tamiflu, warning it could deplete the supply of the medication before they know whether the epidemic is serious or could give rise to a drug-resistant form of the virus.

In the U.S., public health officials have rejected restrictions on travel and public gatherings as draconian and probably worthless, now that the virus has spread worldwide.

“Nobody wants to see a repeat of overreacting when there is no real emergency,” said Dr. Stephen S. Morse, professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, citing the government’s rush to inoculate people during a swine flu scare in 1976.

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