If you have not been in a coma for the past week, then you cannot have failed to notice how our society has gone temporarily insane over the H1N1 influenza A virus or “swine flu.” In fact, the World Health Organization stopped using the term swine flu last week because it was confusing the public about the safety of pork. However, this failed to stop the completely unnecessary slaughter of pigs by the Egyptian authorities despite the fact that a) there were no cases of the virus in Egypt and b) it is not contracted from pigs. Just as well that there was not a similar panic about “German measles.”
We might scoff at the Egyptians but already, we in the West are over-reacting to anyone sporting a sombrero, eating Mexican food or looking slightly too sun-tanned for this time of year. And already the conspiracy theorists are sharpening up their knives. Last week, as the swine fever story was breaking, I did a radio interview with Jon Grayson on the Overnight America show. As I waited to do my piece, I listened to the phone-in calls from insomniacs commenting on the Mexican outbreak. It was remarkable how the outbreak was interpreted as various conspiracies from a) illegal Mexican immigrants, b) drug companies who make the vaccine, c) companies who make face masks and of course that old favourite d) the US military.
Influenza kills people. Nothing has changed. All that has changed is the media hysteria and misguided attempts of the Government to issue appropriate information. Today, in the UK, we are going to receive guidelines about not sneezing directly into other peoples’ faces and washing our hands after touching elevator buttons (direct reference to the avian flu outbreak). I understand the makers of alcohol hand wipes should do nicely out of this and are rubbing their hands together (as they hope we will).
At the moment the H1N1 virus is no more dangerous than other influenza strains. But if we start dishing out anti-viral treatments like “Tamiflu” to otherwise completely healthy individuals because of the panic, then there is a real danger that our anti-viral treatments will lead to viral resistance in the same way that the over-prescription of anti-biotics have created multi-resistant strains of bacterial infection. Then we really will be screwed if a more virulent and lethal virus comes along.
Sometimes it is best to keep the public in the dark because collectively we often do not know what’s good for us as a whole. But then that would be a conspiracy, wouldn’t it?