It's very sad to read of 150 deaths - so far - from the unique form of swine flu that has broken out in Mexico, where masks are now de rigeur. Research by the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) with the University of Hong Kong on the effectiveness of face masks finished last year, but the results weren't published.
Perhaps this is because the problem with face-masks is getting people to wear them - Influenza World reported last month on a study led by Dr Raina McKintyre of the University of New South Wales which found that wearing a mask "curbs in-home spread" of the illness. However, on the first day of the trial less than two-fifths of participants were wearing their masks, and it went downhill from there; ironically, the study was reported a little closer to the action in February, by the Peruvian news agency Andina.
Mexico certainly hasn't got its troubles to seek right now, with an earthquake hitting Mexico City as the authorities there are trying to take the sensible precautions of closing schools and cutting down on unnecessary journeys. And I can imagine that if I lived in the US it would be tempting to be very worried, especially in those parts near a border already porous enough to let through individuals and gangs connected to the drugs trade; viruses are smaller and less easily detected - the Telegraph reports that "in Texas, a school has been closed and a family put into quarantine after three children fell sick".
But all fatalities have - so far - been in Mexico. However, I'm a little worried about the climate of what I can only describe as hysteria being whipped up by some sectors. I don't think I can put it better than the Daily Express's headline:
(The two had returned to Scotland from Mexico, and are now doing well in hospital. Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that some twenty-odd who had been in contact with them had reported mild symptoms.)
I tolerated the Sun's website long enough to find a thread on its forum entitled WILL PIG FLU KILL US ALL?, on which a poster had written (in all seriousness), "BTW its NOT PIG FLU, its a biotoxic weapon that was stolen from US labs Maybe you should read between the lines. Bird Flu was exactly the same thing but from China". I can remember similar things being said about HIV in the 1980's; I suppose the loonies need to let off steam about something. The Sun's homepage promised reportage on Ms Sturgeon's statement, then her faced morphed into a celebrity I've never seen before and probably never will again who was modelling bikinis for some reason.
So what's rattled my cage? The statistics at the top of the post - flu kills 20,000 people a year in this country, and 500,000 worldwide. The most vulnerable people are carried off either by the flu or a pneumonia, often bacterial, which accompanies it - for example, young children, older people and the homeless. In 2007, Indonesia famously stopped supplying influenza supplies to the World Health Organisation because of concerns that some samples were finding their way to a pharmaceutical company to make vaccines that the country couldn't afford to buy for its people. The stand-off was soon resolved, and the Indonesian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Baxter International to create a flu vaccine for the country.
Pharmaceutical and related companies companies are doing well out of this crisis - the Telegraph's Rowena Mason reports that "The FTSE 100 rose as fears that the swine flu outbreak in Mexico could derail a global economic recovery faded and investors bought pharmaceutical shares on expectations that countries will stockpile vaccines". An outfit called Easy Flu Protection Personal Pandemic Plans is offering to store "reserved stock of antiviral medication specifically for you", without explaining how it might prevent your lifeline from being diverted should headline-writers' dreams come true.
Baxter International, mentioned above, is applying to the WHO for a contract to manufacture vaccine for swine-flu. This is disturbing, for two reasons. Firstly, its research facility at Orth-Donau, Austria got conspiracy theorists so excited they practically went into orbit when it sent vaccine containing live bird flu virus to the Czech republic in February.
Secondly, Baxter International drew criticism in 2001 for creating smallpox vaccine, usually made from animal tissue, from "lung tissue taken from a 14-week fetus aborted from a 27-year-old woman".
What worries me is that the high emotions being whipped up around the swine flu outbreak will be manipulated to push through unconscionable methods of creating vaccines at a time when responsible scientists desire to use cell-lines from other sources than human beings who have not been in a position to consent or otherwise to their use. Whether you want to look at it from the point of view of the Catechism of the Catholic Church's statement that "viewing persons as mere means to [an] end engenders unjust structures" (para 1887) or from Immanuel Kant's theory of ends - that nobody should unknowingly be involved in a process whose ends they do not understand - it's wrong, and poignantly so given that it has never been easier to manufacture vaccines from non-objectionable cell lines. The market's insertion with violence into the sacred places of creation requires us to think hard about why Jesus reacted as he did in the temple.
I'm sorry that there are a lot of people falling ill in different places, and pray that the death-toll doesn't mount too high. I fear that the Government is going to play up the impact of swine flu, and not just in order to bury bad news: we're in danger of developing fatigue in all sorts of areas, for reasons that anybody who heard the story of the boy who cried wolf as a child will understand.
Related post: happy birthday Charles Darwin
Swine flu - is it time to panic yet?