Monday, April 27, 2009

swine flu and the hazard of hysteria

By the end of this year, around 20,000 people in Great Britain will have died of flu. For one simple reason: according to Dr Colin Russell of Cambridge University's Centre for Pathogen Evolution and the World Health Organisation, around that number die of flu in Britain every year, and indeed there are on average 500,000 deaths every year worldwide.

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 Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Executive Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing: click to read the storyin 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 sEasy Flu Protection - click to go to the websitewine 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 facilitBaxter International's Baxter Worldwide logoy 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 Immanuel Kantvaccines 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.

sow with piglet by Scott Bauer

Related post: happy birthday Charles Darwin

Swine flu - is it time to panic yet?


  1. Article in the Houston Chronicle on Saturday last said a) there is no vaccine for the current version of swine flu and b) it is healthy people ages 25-45 who are the majority of those who have died in Mexico City. Don't know how true that is, but it's somewhat disturbing.

    San Antonio (3 hour drive from here) now has some cases, but no reported fatalities. I'm not in panic mode, but I guess prayer is our solution at this point.

    We already have face masks (for use with pesticides, cleaners, etc.), but I figure the reason folks don't wear them is they get darned uncomfortable, really quickly.

  2. They do get uncomfortable, don't they? And the last I heard about them, they become saturated with moisture from the breath in 20-30 minutes, and can lose effectiveness after that. I guess the measures we learnt at our mothers' knees to prevent "coughs and sneezes spreading diseases" are still the best medicine. But it can't be comfortable with swine flu getting nearer - I thought about you and Linda and your families when I read the article about the school in Texas; you'll be in our prayers.

  3. Um, could you add my priest friend in Tijuana to that list? Thanks....

  4. Certainly shall do. I was very sad to hear of the death of the child in Texas today.

  5. That sounds very disturbing. I don't know what to do other than pray.

    Ironically, there's a wave of (ordinary) flu going round parts of Cambridgeshire, but news like your own puts it into perspective. How's public order?

  6. Some schools closing, others issuing statements (the usual: wash hands, etc.). My kids' school is open, but my niece's school closed, even though there are no reported cases there. We're praying, but trying not to worry.

    Late in the year for ordinary flu, isn't it?

  7. I don't know - I didn't know "ordinary" flu had a season. Certainly where I work there's not that much air circulation, and if somebody brings in a bug it goes all round the houses.

    My daughter and I just said a prayer for you, Linda, and all yours before she went to bed.

  8. Today the news reported 1080 confirmed cases worldwide, 25 deaths in Mexico City. Doesn't seem like cause for hysteria, exactly, though definitely caution.

    Once, a pediatrician claimed it was unlikely my daughter's fever was "flu" because the flu season was over. First I'd heard of such a thing.

    Keep hearing about air circulation. My brother says Mexico City resides in the bottom of a geographical "bowl", and that is why the bug is such a plague there.

  9. That's a surprising thing for a paediatrician to say - it's like saying you can't have norovirus in summer because it's known as "the winter vomiting bug".

    I can believe that about air circulation. When I lived in Glasgow we were on a hill, and subject to strong winds from the north and west. Bugs didn't last too long. I wonder if that's still the case there, now people spend longer times indoor with better draught prevention...

    How are things in Texas regarding the flu?


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