Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Swine flu isn’t a doomsday bug

It is one of life’s truisms that the first thing people do when they are told not to panic, is to panic.

With a sudden surge in the number of deaths attributed to swine flu in the UK — 12 fatalities in three days — it is natural that the public should be apprehensive.

That feeling has not been helped by media predictions that up to 1,800 people could die from swine flu in a worst case scenario. This creates the impression of an inescapable doomsday bug about to strike this autumn and winter. It should be remembered that in any given winter around 6,000 to 8,000 people in the UK die from normal seasonal flu. It is important to keep a sense of perspective about the sensational death tolls being predicted.

It is also natural for them to feel that perhaps the infection is much worse than experts had predicted or are even saying at the moment. The one fact that still seems incontrovertible is that the infection attacks the young and those with underlying health problems and these are the groups most at risk.

Pregnant women are also considered a risk group and while the Royal College of Midwives obviously meant well in its advice to pregnant women to avoid crowded places and unnecessary travel, life is not that simple. Many pregnant women are still at work which requires them to travel in crowded public transport. So they are being given advice which will only lead to an increase in their stress levels at a time when they are already stressed.

It is important to remember that in spite of the deaths to date, the strain of swine flu attacking the UK is relatively mild. People die from ordinary flu when it causes complications and it is the same with swine flu. The advice given initially — to contact your GP if you suspect you are infected — still holds. Medical experts are best placed to make a diagnosis and offer the appropriate treatment.

Unfortunately, given recent publicity GP surgeries are likely to be inundated with concerned patients. Those in positions of influence should not issue statements which are likely to increase patient fears unless the flu mutates to a more virulent strain or there is some other reason for general concern. What we really want to hear from the authorities is that they have sufficient stocks of anti-viral drugs to mitigate the effects of the flu and also to prevent it spreading even faster.

In Northern Ireland, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey says there will be sufficient drugs available by the autumn to cope with any increase in the pandemic. Let us hope that his optimism is well-founded and that there is no sudden last minute hitch leaving the province at the back of the queue when the drugs are being handed out.

Some estimates suggest that 98% of people who contract swine flu will not require hospital treatment. Many people may even have the infection and not realise it. But for a relatively small number of people — particularly the young, people with suppressed immunity or underlying health condition and pregnant women — the potential for complications is there and they should be particularly alert and seek medical assistance if they feel they have flu. For the rest of us the advice is not to panic — really, don’t panic.

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