Friday, 1 May 2009

Dont Panic!

So the big story to hit the headlines at the minute is this Swine Flu problem. Which probably isn't as big a problem as all that. Only the BBC and to a certain extent the WHO* seem to be trying to make it worse. Yes, scandal and fear sell papers, but really BBC, I expected better.

The thing is, when you look at the actual facts, we have a virus which has, outside of Mexico, been very mild, and outside of the Americas has had less than a handful of cases. It's no worse than the average dose of human influenza. And lets face it, human flu is a bit of a crap virus. It makes you feel grotty for a few days, maybe a week, and then you make a full recovery. The only problem with that is when you get a secondary infection, such as pneumonia - which is treatable, but which can cause deaths in people whose immune systems are already compromised, or people who are less robust, such as the very young or the very old. I would be prepared to bet that the majority of deaths in Mexico aren't actually down to Swine Flu, but down to this kind of secondary infection. It doesn't help that Mexico doesn't have the healthcare and resources that Britain or the US have. Even if Swine Flu does start spreading among the UK populous at large, I highly doubt we'll see more deaths from it than we would see in the average year from regular human influenza.

But when you get the press jumping up and down on a story, you get terror and panic, and that just ends up causing more problems than it solves. Being the massive hypochondriac that I am, phrases like "There are numerous cases elsewhere - the highest number outside Mexico is the US - and Europeans have been told it is certain there will be deaths." really, really don't help anyone.
From the same article:

"It really is the whole of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic."
"It is not a question of whether people will die, but more a question of how many. Will it be hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands?"

And it's not just the press who are fueling this - the first quote was from Director General Margaret Chan, of the WHO, the other from Robert Madelin the European director-general of health and consumer protection. These are really people who ought to know better. I have no problems with telling people about the risks, I don't condone lying, but phrasing things in such an emotive way is just as bad as lying because you're giving them a false impression of the situation. Now is NOT the time to panic, and comments like that from officials, supposedly in the know, are just going to exacerbate an already tense situation.

The other thing is that people are splashing around the word "Pandemic" without telling people what it actually means. So you can see why Joe Bloggs on the street is confusing it with "apocalypse". When another WHO person is saying that "Clearly we are on track for a pandemic in the coming months." might it not be a good idea that we know what he's talking about?

A pandemic, just so everyone is clear on this, just means an infectious disease, with human to human transmission, affecting people on more than one continent. Stage 6 of the WHO guidelines require "increased and sustained transmission in the human population". So there's actually a few pandemics already going on without us noticing, we've already got an HIV pandemic going on, for example. And a TB one. And they're much more serious than the flu.

Really, right now it's time to take advice from Douglas Adams...

*Be careful to pronounce this "double-you aitch oh" not "Who", or you might get the same thing I did, which was my fiancee thinking I was accusing Keith Moon of scaremongering...

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