Six-Year-Old Ananya Wears a Mask to School to Fight Against The Swine Flu

By Surekha Kadapa-Bose, Womens Feature Service

“It is so scary,” exclaimed Srirekha Pillai, a journalist working with a Mumbai-based monthly lifestyle magazine. Her five-year-old daughter Ria is studying in senior KG at Poonawalla High School, in Mumbai’s western suburb of Santa Cruz. “Thankfully the schools have closed down. But even then I made sure she wore a mask to school.”

“Although my daughter doesn’t like to wear the mask I have persuaded her to at least tie a handkerchief across her nose. She uses local trains to travel from Thane to CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) where her college – St. Xavier’s – is located. So naturally she is exposed to so many things,” commented Shashi Iyer, a senior Income Tax (IT) official in Mumbai.

“My six-year-old daughter, Ananya, studying at St. Gregarious in Chembur, was asked by the school authorities to compulsorily wear a mask. Although she is very uncomfortable with it, I make sure she wears one,” said Andrea Barton D’ Souza, wife of a Mumbai-based businessman.

“Although both my children studying at the BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) school don’t wear masks, I have made sure they don’t expose themselves to an unnecessary risk by going out of the BARC campus where we stay,” explained Dr Santwana Chandrarkar. She works as an assistant professor at the D.Y. Patil Hospital in New Bombay and is a senior visiting physician at the Niramaya Holistic Centre at Chembur.

There’s only one concern on the mind of the average Mumbaikar these days – the deadly H1N1 virus, or swine flu, a respiratory disease caused by a new strain of influenza. Swine flu is very similar to other flu viruses. What makes it different is that it contains genetic material found in birds, human and pigs, and has mutated to become a human virus.

Mumbai is a city of more than 10 million people, and other seasonal diseases like jaundice, typhoid, malaria and dengue are responsible for many more deaths each year than swine flu has claimed. Yet, the panic surrounding swine flu is unprecedented. In fact, anyone who has visited Mumbai for the first time today will presume that Mumbaikars have a new dress code – a nose-mouth mask!

As Maharashtra government stepped up efforts to contain the flu by practically shutting down the cities of Pune and Mumbai for a few days and roping in private hospitals to deliver the required healthcare, anxious mothers in both cities have declared a domestic war against the virus. Abundant precaution is their battle cry.

“According to the medical bulletins, only health workers are supposed to wear the masks. But then people don’t want to take a risk when they don’t know what the consequences are going to be,” said Dr Chandrarkar.

Andrea and Shashi too feel that while they aren’t exactly panicking, they certainly don’t want to expose themselves or their family members to any ailment however mild or ferocious it might be. “Why take a chance?” they both said. Everybody believes that in a city like Mumbai, which has such a large population and a lot of in-bound traffic from abroad, it is best to be careful.

Shashi whose daughter Karishma is doing her Bachelor’s, makes sure that she doesn’t consume anything from outside. “I pack her lunch box and drinking water bottle. She has, on her own, opted out of regular outings with friends which was once a part of her routine. She now heads straight back home from college,” revealed the cautious mom.

Andrea too has made several lifestyle changes. “Although I haven’t stopped Ananya from enjoying her evening games, I don’t take her out to market places. She is a lively child so I allow her to go and play with other kids in the housing society. But outside snacks are a strict no-no. Even David, my husband, has made it a point not to eat food from outside and he drinks either bottled water or the boiled water that he carries from home to work,” she said.

Srirekha who stays at Versova has bought several masks for her daughter. She, too, doesn’t like to keep her daughter caged inside the apartment. So she has allowed her to go and play with the other kids in the neighbourhood but has also made it mandatory to follow a proper hygiene routine once she is back. In fact, all the women spoken to said that they now make their family members wash their hands, feet and faces with soap immediately after returning from school, office or play, and have banned outside food – including cakes and pastries.

“If the city municipal corporation ensured proper care and saw that all garbage was collected and disposed off properly, many of the airborne disease we face could have easily been curbed. Besides if citizens took care to use the dustbins kept on the sidewalks, the city would have remained cleaner,” observed Shashi.

But Harkanbai Jagtap, who works as a domestic worker in several flats in Thane, has a different take on swine flu, scoffing at the fear caused by it. A mother of three children studying in municipal schools, she stays at the Gandhi Nagar slum in Thane. Said Harkanbai, “In our jhopadpatti (slum), every day someone or the other is dying of some disease or the other. If nothing else, alcohol kills them. Things like swine flu come and go. We don’t bother about it.”

She has a point there. According to several doctors and health experts, swine flu is just flu – with a different name. People should just take simple precautions, build their general immunity and, yes, keep panic at bay, they advice.

If there is a bright side to the swine flu scare it is this: It has made both ordinary citizens and the state more conscious of public health and general hygiene.

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