Thursday, 16 July 2009

Thoughts on swine flu

I am the kind of person who tends to panic about these kinds of things, worry that we'll all die, and then makes plans to move to an isolated Cornish island while also being unable to put the worry out of my head. Due to this, I tend to research these kinds of health scares a bit obsessively in the hope that I can find out that the *real* story is less alarming. Right now I am vacillating between panic and insouciance which is very uncomfortable, but I thought I'd share my thoughts and research in the hope it my comfort other hypochondriacs and also that others may have other hope to share.Firstly, it seems that actual facts are hard to come by. Given that the UK, at least, has given up doing serum tests to confirm swine flu infection and is advising people to stay at home and not contact anyone unless they feel 'very unwell', there is no way to have a true estimate of the number of infections. Worldwide cases have reached 125,000, but some sources seem to think up to 10,000 are coming down with it *per day* in the UK alone. It seems to me that without any actual hard facts, it is hard to make any kind of estimates about the damn thing.However, despite the lack of facts, the WHO have given a tentative mortality rate for this outbreak of 0.4% - to put this into perspective, ordinary seasonal flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%, bubonic plague a mortality rate of 30-75%. The 1918 flu pandemic is estimated to have killed 50 million people worldwide, while malaria kills 1-3 million people *a year* every year and is only classed as a 'health problem'.Experts have related this swine flu virus to the pathogen in the 1918 pandemic, just to wind us all up, I think, but looking back to that outbreak, conditions now are very different. For one thing, we haven't just had a world war. Which is always a good thing. The 1918 outbreak has been traced to mid-America and was then taken by American soldiers to the trenches which provided a fantastic bredding ground with their crowded, unsanitary conditions and their immune-suppressed inhabitants. From there, it spread worldwide due to troop movements as soldiers were demobbed after the armistice, and spread further due to victory parades held in various countries. Some have suggested that its unprecedented virulence (estimates vary from 2.5% to 20%) was mainly to do with the wartime conditions in that those who had it mildly tended to stay put and not infect anyone else whereas those who had it badly were often put on crowded troop trains to be transferred to field hospitals where they spread their virulent strain further. This is the opposite of usual conditions whereby people who have it badly are isolated and those who have it mildly spread their strain. I am hopeful that the wartime situations won't recur.And on to the vaccine. This I am also perturbed by. In what has become known as the Swine Flu Fiasco of 1976, the American govt panicked at the start of a relatively mild outbreak, announced a nationwide vaccination programme and had only managed to vaccinate 24-33% before realising that the flu had infected only 200 people and killed 1 person and the vaccine had killed 25 people and crippled up to 500. Of course, on that occasion, the flu luckily did not spread as it is now spreading. But it raises questions about the safety of vaccines which are rushed through. The UK govt has announced vaccinations will start at the end of August when the Head of the WHO has stated that the vaccine will need 2-3 months of safety testing starting at first availability at the end of August. Our givt seems to think that 5 days of mock-up safety testing will be adequate to start using the vaccine on our most vulnerable people - the elderly and children and those with these now-famous 'underlying health problems', those of which are immuno-suppressed will not be able to take a vaccine anyway. And the govt wonders why no-one trusts it.And the effectiveness of the vaccine? A recent piece of research has found that children receiving the vaccine against ordinary seasonal flu are actually 3 times more likely to be hospitalised with flu than those who have not had the vaccine. Plus the govt are stating in their NHS advice that having the swine flu now may not give you immunity if the virus mutates and returns in the winter. In that case what is the point of vaccinating everyone with the vaccine grown from this strain of the virus, if it won't help if the virus mutates into a different (and possibly, or possibly not,more virulent) form?Gah! Is it any wonder that I'm worried and don't know who to trust? Other thoughts welcome.


Jax said...

My thoughts are coloured by the fact that other half collapsed with flu symptoms last night, and looks like the walking dead this morning - now waiting for GP to call back. Plus I'm 23 weeks pregnant, which makes me at risk apparently.

so aargh, aargh, aargh, are where I'm starting from.

Like you, I've tried to do the research, and I can't even find a suggested incubation period, let alone any real description of what we're dealing with. The vaccine suggestion really worries me, I don't like the idea of being a (pregnant) guinea pig for something that's had 5 days testing, but I can't find any real estimate of what the risks are. At 0.4% I think I'd rather take the virus on, but is that really my risk rate? Does anyone know?

I think I'll go back to hyperventilating in the corner now :(

Liz said...

Calm, calm! I hope your other half is feeling better soon and you've had a helpful response from your GP. Keep us posted. It is so worrying, isn't it?