All of the headlines> about the spread of swine flu beyond Mexico's border are enough to make anyone want to live in a protective bubble.
But with just one confirmed swine flu death in the U.S. -- a 23-month-old Mexican child brought to Texas for treatment -- it s important to keep in mind that the scare is, well, just that. (The remaining seven laboratory-confirmed swine flu deaths have occurred in Mexico, where outbreaks began in March.) An estimated 36,000 Americans die annually from complications related to regular seasonal flu strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, the World Health Organization s tally of confirmed U.S. cases of swine flu stands at 91 since it was first identified as a new strain April 24. On Wednesday, the WHO raised the pandemic alert level to 5 -- just one level below a full pandemic.
While your odds of contracting swine flu may be slim, it s never a bad idea to have a few preventative emergency supplies on hand, says Lesly Simmons, a spokeswoman for The American Red Cross. But you don't need to go overboard. Plenty of enterprising salespeople and entrepreneurs are hawking swine flu- and pandemic-readiness kits on web sites like Craigslist.org and Amazon.com that are overpriced or offer items that you don't need, she says.
For example, Quake Kare s $40 Swine Flu Pandemic Kit on Amazon.com includes a full-body Tyvek suit, safety goggles and plastic sheeting to shelter in place. Sherry Heitz, Quake Kare's CEO says that the plastic sheeting and the Tyvek suit aren't really necessary at this point, but the items may well be recommended by the government should the outbreaks worsen.
The truth is you probably already have most of what you need in the drawers, closets and cabinets of your home, says Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health. The emergency kit checklist she and Simmons recommend: soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and, for more worried consumers, gloves and a particulate mask. It s basically the same protocol people should take for seasonal flu, she says. A lot of it is just common sense.
Smartmoney.com went shopping at CVS in New York to see how much it would cost to put together our own flu-prevention kit (assuming someone didn t have any of the suggested items already on hand). Our total tab: $31. (See chart below for the breakdown of items and their cost.)
Our final tally is a bit pricey compared to the Red Cross s Germ Guard Personal Protection Pack, which, for just $10, includes all the recommended gear, but you get much less for the money. The Red Cross's kit includes one N95 mask (instead of our two-pack), an ounce of hand sanitizer (we got a 15-ounce bottle), 10 cleansing wipes (our wipes came in a 24-pack), a pair of vinyl gloves (we got 25 pairs) and a pack of tissues (we passed on the tissues). Simmons says the kit is meant as a basic or travel pack.
On the other end of the spectrum, Preparedness.com charges $119 for a Personal Pandemic Defense Kit containing 20 N95 masks (18 more than we got), 25 pairs of non-latex disposable gloves (our list includes the same amount), 100 hand-cleansing towelettes, 50 disinfecting wipes (compared to our 75), six 20-count tissue packs, two waste disposal bags marked with the bio-hazard symbol and a pair of protective goggles, all of which are contained in a nylon carry bag. We didn't buy the tissues, disposal bags, protective goggles or the nylon carry bag because neither Simmons nor Pospisil, from the New York State Department of Health recommended buying them. When asked why the Personal Pandemic Defense Kit was so expensive compared to the other kits we had seen, a Preparedness.com spokesman (who wouldn't divulge his full name) said: We don t have to justify anything.
|* Prices from CVS in New York City unless otherwise noted.|
|Soap||Washing your hands for 20 seconds with hot water and soap (antibacterial or otherwise) eliminates most germs -- and is the single best thing you can do to avoid contracting the flu, says Pospisil.||$2.69 for a 7.5-ounce bottle of Softsoap Antibacterial.|
|Hand sanitizer||If you re in a location where you can t wash your hands immediately, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good substitute to kill germs, says Simmons. Waterless gel or foam is fine, as are individually wrapped towelettes.||$4.49 for a 15-ounce bottle of CVS-brand sanitizer, or $1.19 for the store s 2-ounce travel bottle. Or buy a 24-pack of CVS-brand individually wrapped wipes for $3.99.|
|Disinfectant wipes||Wipe down shared surfaces (kitchen table) and those you frequently touch (office desk) to avoid spreading germs.||$6.29 for a container of 75 Clorox wipes.|
|Particulate mask||The CDC is not currently advising that consumers wear particulate masks, says Pospisil. But if you re really worried, skip the store brands and go with one marked as N95, which is what the CDC advises to control exposure of infectious diseases like tuberculosis.||$8.99 for two N95 respirators by 3M on Amazon.com.|
|Gloves||This isn t a must-do if you re regularly washing your hands, but wearing gloves limits your exposure to germs on shared surfaces -- a train handrail, for example. Worried consumers can use their own winter-wear or buy a few disposable pairs, says Simmons. (It s not foolproof, though, so don t use this in place of hand washing.)||$8.49 for a box of 50 CVS-brand latex gloves.|