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Swine Flu Thrusts Retail Health Initiatives into the Spotlight

Swine flu fears will put retailers who have been expanding health services on the front lines for prevention and treatment, providing their initiatives with new recognition.

Headlines might focus on swine flu's global advance, but retailers will get the credit where it counts, locally. For example, in Michigan, the Kent County Health Department is working with supercenter operator Meijer and two local supermarket chains, Family Fare and D&W, both affiliated with the Spartan Stores wholesaler, to provide the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza to combat the swine, or H1N1, flu if the illness become widespread in the area. Both Meijer and Spartan are headquartered in Grand Rapids, Kent County's capital, and have lots of stores in the vicinity.

Meijer and the Spartan-affiliated supermarkets will work with the Kent County health department to help distribute several thousand courses of the drugs free of charge to anyone with a doctor's prescription. Meijer already provides free antibiotics and prenatal vitamins, and its activities in the flu scare can only reinforce its position as an important health care institution in the community.

Of course, Meijer and Spartan aren't the only retailers who are responding to concerns. CVS is among the retailers who have posted health alerts on their home pages that include information about how to avoid swine flu. CVS also provides instructions about how to get tested for flu at one of its MinuteClinic community treatment centers. Test results are available in minutes, and MinuteClinic practitioners can initiate antiviral treatments immediately.

Walgreens, as part of its efforts to address consumer concerns, also has swine flu information on its home page and references the company's Take Care Clinics, offering that its own health care providers can diagnose and treat flu. The other major drug store chain, RiteAid, provides phone and Internet connections to its pharmacists who can assess symptoms and suggest which folks might want to see a doctor for an antiviral prescription.

Among its initiatives regarding flu, Wal-Mart also has been posting informational alerts on its web site, providing worried customers with a way to learn more about the potential threat and to deal with it. Kroger's web site includes the reminder that consumers can't get swine flu from eating pork, and it's hard to blame the supermarket operator for letting folks know that they can still consume a perishable commodity it has in large supply. Even dollar stores, which don't operate pharmacies, are getting into the act, with 99 Cents Only promoting itself as an inexpensive destination for face masks, antibacterial wipes, sanitizers, bandages, alcohol, even water, flashlights, batteries and canned foods, just in case the flu turns out to be a lot worse than appears likely.

As they continue to get more involved with health care, retailers will become increasingly important actors in dealing with health threats and even more deeply integrated into the lives of their customers.

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