Obligatory Swine Flu post

Already, people are starting to come up to me in the street and ask me what they should do about Swine Flu. I’m not sure if this is because I look like a pig or because I had my “Trust me, I’m a Microbiologist” t-shirt on. I’m guessing the latter, since no-one in their right mind is going to approach anyone that looks even vaguely porcine right now.

I’ve been getting the regular quizzing, you know the: “Is this serious?” and the “Am I going to die?” ones. Well, yes it is and yes you are. Sorry to be blunt, but I’ve got to save time for the more interesting questions, like: “Can we blame Jacob Zuma for this?” and “I had a tequila on Friday night – am I infectious?”.
I don’t have the answers for those, but they’re far more entertaining than the rather morose death stuff.

Who knows where this outbreak is going to go from here? Well actually, no-one does yet. Experts may hypothesise, but if one looks carefully, not one of them is going to make a definitive statement on what is going to happen next, for the simple reason that we have reached the edge of our current understanding.

Already, social networking sites – most especially twitter – have been blamed for causing unnecessary panic about swine flu. But who can say that this “panic” is “unnecessary” right now? Well actually, no-one can. Swine flu might go away quietly, but it would be wise to be aware that it’s more likely not to. The bad news is that early reports suggest that it is highly infectious. The good news is that the mortality rates seem relatively low.
The fears over bird flu which began about five years ago were, in my view, entirely justified and it was only a combination of global medical awareness and good luck that the H5N1 virus didn’t infect and kill more individuals.
That this H1N1 strain has the ability to be passed from human to human is extremely concerning to me, not least because I am a human. It’s widely accepted that the lack of human to human transmission was the only thing that stopped bird flu from going pandemic, which is why, even at this early stage of the outbreak, the global infection patterns for the two similar viruses are distinctly dissimilar.

In my mind there are three things for us to be worried about at this early stage:
1. The scale of infection. Even if the mortality rate is low, huge numbers of people being away from their jobs is not good news. Services, food, production etc may well be hit hard. Not good in the midst of a global economic downturn.
2. Tamiflu resistance developing. So far, so good – at least we can treat those with the virus – to a degree. But we only have one weapon and once this new virus overcomes that – well, we have no defence.
3. A nastier strain emerging. It doesn’t take much for a more virulent, more aggressive viral strain to develop – especially in a virus which is so very infectious. This would be my biggest fear and could be where we start to see numbers of deaths climbing very sharply. And annoyingly, there’s nothing we can do to prevent this occurring.

Of course, the ease with which we can access information these day is a double-edged sword. While it can alert us to the threat of swine flu (or anything else), it does open up windows of opportunity for misinformation to be spread… well… virally. And separating that important, helpful information from all the background noise is where the skill comes in. But it’s not that difficult, is it? Simply take into account the source of information and then make an informed decision on whether or not you choose to believe what you read.
So yes, read what @scaredpig (or whoever) is telling you on twitter and then discount it. Read what the WHO say and take note. But hasn’t that always been the case?

But does this potential information overload actually make things any better or worse? If twitter had been around in 1918 when the Spanish Flu killed off 25 million worldwide, wouldn’t people have been tweeting about the latest news of cases and deaths in their areas, speculating and spreading rumours? Would it have done any good? Would it have done any harm?

Meanwhile, mashable.com’s How to track Swine Flu online article, which includes the admirable advice:

Stay Calm, Stay Informed:
While there’s likely to be much concern on social networking sites about public health incidents, it’s important to keep things in proportion, and go direct to the sources of news rather than spreading panic.

has also fallen victim to to those misinformants – this gem from the comments section:

Most important, don’t take any government vaccinations! Strengthen your immune system!

Yes, that’s by far the most important thing to do – if offered a vaccination that may save your life, don’t take it. Because…. because… well… never mind – just don’t!
One can only hope the author takes his own advice on that one. Goodbye.

Meanwhile, I’m off to lie in the sun in Kirstenbosch Gardens. May be a bit busy there with it being a three-day week, but I’m taking my trusty sombrero with me. I don’t expect to be bothered by anyone all afternoon.

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