Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Should Swine Flu lead to panic.

I still believe that Avian Influenza H5N1 is a much more worrying virus than the swine flu that is currently causing such a media frenzy - and consternation verging on panic in the population. First, the bird flu. We know that its a killer, particularly of young people. Half of those who are affected die of it. But we also know its not a great problem because the virus does not transfer from birds to humans easily, and will not become a problem unless it mutates, probably on contact with another flu virus that spreads easily from birds to humans, and amongst humans. We know that a bird flu pandemic is unlikely, but potentially devastating beyond imagination if it were to come to pass.

Swine flu is completely different. It spreads easily, and seems not to be any worse than traditional forms of flu. It makes those unfortunate to go down with it feel lousy for a few days, just like any other flu virus. And then it passes. We're told that its likely to lead to more deaths from flu next winter than we might normally expect. No-one can put a precise figure on this, but the last serious flu outbreak (was it 2000?) lead to around 20,000 deaths of people in the UK suffering from flu over the winter compared with a more normal figure of fewer than 10,000 deaths. People already frail or sick are particularly vulnerable. And a few otherwise healthy people may die as well.

Despite the above, the Government is right to take the threat of swine flu seriously. But I have found it difficult to make much sense of what our Government has been saying about it. To begin with Ministers talked about trying to prevent the virus entering the UK, without actually doing anything to implement such a policy. And when the virus entered the UK, Ministers talked about controlling its spread - without actually doing anything to implement this policy either. And when it did spread, Ministers talked about the drugs it was making available to fight this terrible threat to our lives. Now its clear that the disease is spreading without Ministers having any idea or capacity to control it - or even have much real knowledge of how many people have been affected. The new message seems to be not to worry about it too much - and not even visit the doctor. Unless of course the person going down with the virus is elderly, or vulnerable for some other reason.

But the nation seems to be in full panic mode. The tragic death of an otherwise healthy little girl yesterday is being interpreted by some commentators as evidence that the virus may be mutating and becoming more dangerous. It seems to me far too early to make this conclusion. In fact, I can see no reason at all to panic about swine flu - yet.


JPT said...

The government said yesterday that they think maybe a third of the British population will get swine flu this winter - that's twent million people!
Also that about seventy thousand will die from it.
I used to think the whole swine flu thing was a bit of a non story.
Not any more.

Glyn Davies said...

JPT - I've not seen this prediction - but I do worry about these predictions. I recall reports during the BSE/CJD outbreak telling us that eating beef on the bone risked killing millions of people. We had the Minister condemning me as irresponsible one day for not slavishly accepting the Medical Officer's advice to maintain the ban, only for the MO and the Minister to announce, with great fanfare, the next day that the ban was being lifted. I see that the BBC is reporting that 29 people have died from Swine Flu already, so it's an issue to watch. The Government have no option but to take it seriously.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Brown Brigade has screwed up again over Swine Flu, like the Blair Brigade did over foot-in-mouth (or whatever) back in 2000. So long as H1N1 and H5N1 don't get together in a viral orgy and produce mega-H15N11, we should be ok.......