May 6, 2009
Swine flu (H1N1) information leaflets are being delivered to households across the UK today. I suspect they do nothing but increase fear and confuse people, especially as the WHO/UN are about to lower the swine flu alert level.
In the UK, 27 people now have the virus, with 23 in England and four in Scotland and the first P2P transmission in the UK has been reported. But, what happened to the thousands, if not millions, affected we were warned of by the media and government and WHO and UN over the last few weeks? It just hasn’t happened, thankfully.
The leaflets will, of course, explain exactly what is swine flu (I wonder whether they will explain why we now have to call it H1N1 though), who is most at risk, what are the symptoms, and what people can do to reduce their risk of catching the disease.
There was a panic on Monday when the WHO was set to raise the alert level, but it didn’t happen they are maintaining it at Phase V, one below the red alert Phase VI, and may lower the panic level in coming days.
I suspect that the average person reading the government leaflet will disregard it as contradictory with what they are now hearing in the news. They may also see it as simply yet another kneejerk reaction from politicians who always to pander to the media biases rather than making their own scientifically informed decisions.
In my original swine flu article, I rather flippantly advised readers to forget avian influenza and to switch their worries to pigs. But, there was a serious thought behind my silliness because a single disease should not be the focus of fear. Emergent diseases could appear in almost any host animal at any time and cross the species barrier through random mutation.
Indeed, it’s certainly not only pigs, birds, and humans, that catch flu. Horses, and even whales and seals, get a form of the disease. But influenza is not the only virus.
If a second wave of swine flu does not evolve in the Northern autumn this year, there’s no reason to assume that some other respiratory virus, perhaps akin to SARS, perhaps avian, or something entirely different will appear. Will we be prepared for the onset of a previously unknown respiratory, or other, infection spreading from some obscure mammal in central Asia or elsewhere? Or, will the media incite mass hysteria through scaremongering once again?
How will a swine flu pamphlet look in six months time? Confusing and useless, that’s how. The scaremongering that has gone way beyond any seen at the time of SARS and certainly way beyond the avian influenza concerns, will ultimately look like a story of “cry wolf” when the next virus emerges.
The WHO told us a week or two ago that we could no longer contain swine flu, but as it turns out there really was no need to contain it in the first place. It appears (in this wave) not to be as virulent as first feared, mortality rates even in Mexico City are far lower than one would have expected of a serious illness with the number of dead from H1N1 being revised downwards several times already.
Flu experts from Cambridge, the National Institutes of Health, and The Cleveland Clinic will be talking about the science behind the news of the swine flu outbreak at a free webinar on Friday.
All that said, the UK’s chief medic Liam Donaldson, has warned against complacency because flu viruses can change character “very rapidly”. It is too early to assume the swine flu outbreak is a mild infection just because no-one in the UK has died, he says.
For years we have been warned that a lethal flu pandemic to match the Spanish Flu of 1918 was long overdue. Birds, and now pigs, have so far failed to deliver, but what’s that unidentified, flea-bitten rodent running around the market square? Is the tiny creature the harbinger of doom? Will we ever conquer infectious disease?
O’Dowd, A. (2009). Confirmation of first person to person transmission of swine flu in UK expected soon BMJ, 338 (may01 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b1838