Somewhat chastened by the fact that others are having to deal with legitimate fears, and also on an ‘accent-chew-ate the positive, elim-eye-nate the negative‘ basis, I’ve decided to focus this post in a different direction from the last two.
The first reason not to panic is that we’re all still alive. Well, I certainly am, and the fact that you’re reading this is a good sign that you are too, unless you’ve gone down the route of having some Doris Stokes type read aloud to you over the spirit pathways… Seriously, though, the new strain of flu is looking decidedly non-fatal. It was looking non-fatal before, but the fact that more and more people are getting only mildly ill and are resolutely not dying means it can be said with greater confidence. Of course, a few people are known definitely to have died of swine flu in Mexico (with a 160-odd other people suspected to have died), but outside Mexico only the poor little toddler in Texas has died, and s/he was Mexican. The likelihood either that swine flu has a reasonably low mortality rate (or that something other than swine flu is killing people in Mexico) is getting stronger by the day.
The second reason not to panic is that the virus doesn’t seem to be massively transmissible. It’s kind of got lost in all the hoopla about the new potential cases in the UK, but most of the people who came into contact with the initial UK cases (the recently married couple from Scotland – guess they really meant it when they said ‘in sickness and in health’, eh?), have definitely not got swine flu – one person probably has. When and if this is confirmed, the media will go into panic overdrive as this will be the first case of the disease spreading between people in the UK, but the other way of looking at it is that most of their contacts are clear. It would appear that the initial (over-hyped) fear – that anyone who comes within 6 feet of a sufferer will become infected – is not being borne out. Of course, lots more data is needed on this, but it’s really the key thing to watch, since we fairly obviously are now in pandemic territory (the WHO’s caution notwithstanding). If the disease is no more transmissible than ordinary flu, then there’s no reason to believe it will affect significantly more people than ordinary flu..
The third reason not to panic is that ordinary seasonal flu is, in the context of everyday illnesses, a nasty disease, but is not a massive concern in public health terms. I think we get a warped idea of the severity of ordinary flu because so many people call a trivial cold “flu”. In the US each year, 25 to 50 million people catch flu, 150,000 people are hospitalised, and 30,000 – 40,000 die. (The source of these figures is this article, but you have to scroll down about two-thirds of the page to find it.) These are big numbers, but would only usually attract the most scant media coverage. Remember that, even though it’s not given the scary name ‘pandemic’, most people will have no more immunity against ordinary flu than they have against the new flu strain – this is why people have to be vaccinated each year. There is a much greater concern about a new strain of flu because there is a legitimate fear that it may prove more virulent than ordinary flu, but the emerging information seems to be suggesting that this may perhaps not be the case with the current almost-a-pandemic. In other words, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the infection, hospitalisation and mortality statistics for the swine flu outbreak may not be significantly worse than for ordinary flu. Or, to put it another way, that there is no reason to be any more scared of this flu than of the normal flu which crops up year in and year out.
The fourth reason not to panic is that this swine flu is a new strain of the H1N1 form of the flu virus. H1N1 viruses tend to cause relatively minor illness, and most people will have been exposed to a version of H1N1 at some point in their lives because it’s a common virus. This means that most people will have a partial immunity to it, and hence to the new virus. One of the reasons experts were (and are) so particularly concerned about bird flu was that very few humans have ever been exposed to any form of H5N1, so there would be virtually no immunity among the population at large if it started spreading from human to human. That isn’t the case with this new strain of H1N1. Partial immunity isn’t the same as full immunity, of course, and may not turn out to be of huge benefit, but it’s better than nothing.
The fifth reason not to panic is that there are things you can do to limit your risk of exposure, and, in fact, if you’re me, you’ll have been doing it all along. You can minimise contact with other people. You can wash your hands regularly, especially after you have come into contact with other people, or with surfaces that other people may have touched. You can not touch your face (especially the areas around your nose and eyes) unless you have washed your hands immediately beforehand. You can assume all parts of your body and clothing are infected unless and until they have been washed, and apply the same rules to washing your hands and touching your face after touching them that you would apply if you had come into direct contact with something you knew to be infected. Ok, so that’s a level of obsession most people wouldn’t be able to sustain, but this is a good time for everyone to become at least a little bit OCDish, and for those of us with OCD type tendencies to let them really hang out.
And the sixth and final reason not to panic is just because. Just as I said it would (in the least impressive bit of prediction ever), the story has started to move down the news agenda, at least on the BBC (I’m still not letting myself access any other news sources for reasons of self-protection). That doesn’t mean the actual problem has got any better of course, just as the fact that it was top of the agenda for several days didn’t mean it was any worse than it was. The swine flu outbreak remains what it has been from the start – a legitimate cause for concern, but not a reason to panic and assume that the world is about to end. There is no question, though, that I find it much easier to control my irrational responses when I’m not coming across fear-filled doom-mongering everywhere I turn, and I would guess I’m not alone in that. It’s just so much easier to convince myself that logic and reason are the way to go when the general mood seems to be shifting away from the kind of blind panic I’ve been so close to succumbing to myself.