Swine ‘flu: nothing to sneeze at

So of course everyone’s slightly obsessing over swine ‘flu at the moment. I was out of the office on leave (no, not in Mexico) when the news broke, and I rather thought that when I got back to my desk on Wednesday the whole organisation would be diverted to working full time on pandemic contingencies.

Alas, no such thing. It’s very much business as usual, with the regular projects continuing normally. I’m sure some of my colleagues might be working on swine ‘flu-related work but I haven’t found anyone so far. But there’s certainly chatter about it around the proverbial water cooler – the slightest cough gets playful shouts of “swine ‘flu!” directed in your direction, and a couple of folk are suspiciously off ill today all of a sudden … Hmm, yeah, right!

But the elevation of the WHO alert status to ‘5’ (one short of full-blown pandemic) has certainly kicked off some official responses even at a local level, with information emailed to everyone about symptoms, what to watch out for, what to do in the event you suspect someone you know might be coming down with it, we’re collecting home emails for everyone in case it’s necessary to contact people en masse at home, and so forth. It’s all part of the pre-planned response to the alert level being raised, but it’s interesting to see all those plans being utilised for real.

The government’s producing a Swine ‘flu information leaflet (PDF, 119Kb) that will go out to everyone in the next few days; the slogan for the information drive seems to be “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” – I’m biased, but I can’t help but think that it’s not a patch on the old “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” wartime campaign from our predecessor, the Ministry of Information.

There have been a lot of stories about how Twitter has been a major source of misinformation in all of this and has been helping spread the hysteria. In which case all I can say is:

  • Take everything you read online with a pinch of salt and beware the echo chamber effect;
  • Find a better circle of people to follow who aren’t going to spread misinformation.

Perhaps it is the people I follow (or the company I keep) but I can’t think of a single piece of information that I’ve seen on Twitter that hasn’t subsequently been verified – it’s just that Twitter has got there first. I even found out about all this early on Saturday morning on Twitter, and was taking it all with due caution because the BBC site had almost nothing, just a story about Mexico in its Americas section. It was another six or eight hours before someone in the mainstream media woke up and the BBC promoted the article in one bound to the lead story on the site; at which point I was already feeling very well informed thanks to Twitter.

Within hours of the news going mainstream, there was a Google map up and running showing the location and status of the various outbreaks: if anything was made for online mapping, then I suppose a potential pandemic is.

Of course, panic and hysteria and saturation coverage can be very dangerous in a situation like this. But now we’re getting to the next phase of public reaction, which is to blame the media and officials for the reaction and to reject the whole thing as over-the-top hysteria. “It’s just ‘flu, for Heaven’s sake” is the current refrain. Well, yes … But people forget how scary ‘flu can be. That’s real ‘flu, not “manflu” or the “‘flu you ring in to work with to take a crafty day off.” The best definition of the difference between a cold and real ‘flu is “if someone stands at the bottom of your bed dangling a £50 note then if you can reach out and get it, you’ve got a cold. If you can’t, it’s ‘flu”.

So ‘flu can be pretty serious even in normal times, and is certainly high risk for the very young and very old. But that’s ‘flu when large sections of the population have been vaccination and/or have natural immunities: with a completely new strain like the one we’re seeing emerge from Mexico, all of a sudden you have the risk that huge numbers of people will be hit simultaneously and without any of the immunities that protect us form the worst of regular ‘flu outbreaks. So, yes, it’s “just ‘flu” – but it’s the worst case scenario of ‘flu and no one should get complacent about it, just as they shouldn’t get hysterical.

For one thing, despite the raising of the WHO pandemic alert, we’re not there yet: we’re lacking key information about how fast this ‘flu spreads, and how severe its effects are. Why are there so many deaths in Mexico but only one outside (and that a 23-month-old toddler who would be at a greater risk from ‘flu even at normal times)? It may be that the virus doesn’t travel well or has already mutated to a milder version, for example.

Now, I’m not an expert in any of this of course, so pretty much anything you read here could be incorrect. It’s my best understanding, that’s all, and I’m happy to be set straight about any of it if I’m off the mark. And that’s a good caveat to remember when reading the vast majorty of blogs, tweets and social media comment about swine ‘flu: everyone’s guessing and no one really knows everything. So apply a common sense filter when reading about it all, don’t get paranoid – and don’t forget to use your handerchief when you sneeze!

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