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.