Flu season is here. The otherwise uneventful ‘cold’ most Egyptians experience yearly this year has arrived with a vengeance. The reason for this is that now it has a name ’swine flu’ or H1N1 as the more scientifically minded prefer to call it. So what is all the panic about?
The seasonal flu is caused by the influenza A and B virus. Influenza A has several subtypes whereas the B type does not. However both types change each year giving rise to new strains in a process that is called the ‘antigenic drift’. This is mainly the reason that globally, humans have little immunity towards the influenza virus. And thousands are infected yearly, with increased mortality rates among the very young and the elderly.
This year a new strain of the previously known H1N1 virus (swine flu) has emerged that seems is more infective than before, and as it is a new strain humans have no immunity to it. But let’s not forget that it is still a type A influenza virus and behaves pretty much the same as the seasonal flu. So why isn’t our attitude to it the same as that to the seasonal flu? The answer to this question is probably ’misinformation’. There seems to be confusion between the swine flu, the seasonal flu and the common cold.
Symptoms of swine flu include fever, exhaustion, headache, chills, and diarrhoea and vomiting. These symptoms are more or less similar to those of the seasonal flu, however with swine flu there is more shortness of breath, chest pain, and cough. On the other hand, the common cold or coryza is caused by rhinoviruses. Symptoms are milder than the flu, no or rarely some fever, runny or stuffy (blocked) nose, sneezing, coughing, and lasts from three to ten days. The common cold is treated by rest, and drinking plenty of fluids, preferably warm.
Influenza is treated by antiviral drugs, and the specific drug for the swine flu is the drug Tamiflu. To be effective Tamiflu must be administered early in the disease preferably the first three days. As soon as a person suffers from flu symptoms, they can call the flu hotline which is 105. They will be instructed to which hospital they can go to which belong to the Ministry of Health. There they will have investigations performed which include a throat swab, a blood analysis, and chest X-ray. If the test results are positive Tamiflu is supplied by the hospital, and it is not available elsewhere. So, early referral and detection is vital to receive proper treatment. However not every sneeze or cough is the swine flu, and with the presence of a seasonal flu that includes diarrhea and high fever, panic and confusion is bound to arise.
High risk groups that can be affected by H1N1 are young children especially below the age of two, people with chronic diseases and pregnant women.
The latest update (November 8th) according to the World Health Organization, states that the H1N1 virus has spread to 206 countries with a death toll of 6250. A total of over 500,000 cases have been reported, that’s half a million worldwide. So it’s safe to say that swine flu rate of death is approximately 0.012% which is less than the seasonal flu 0.1%, and claims 250-500,000 lives every year, mostly among the elderly.
Yet statistics have no meaning when the threat concerns us directly, especially with all the media scare supported by the public’s healthy ability to circulate rumors. Schools have threatened to close, aided by the Ministry of Education who promises a two month winter vacation. This vacation however will not prevent the children from going to other overcrowded places like the mall or movie theatres. In fact no one mentioned anything about the risk of contracting H1N1 virus during the historical football match between Egypt and Algeria that took place on the 14th of November, where over a hundred thousand fans gathered to support the national team. It was as if the disease ceased to exist.
Even precautions to the disease are inconsistent and performed with a relaxed attitude. Hospitals don’t offer proper isolation; even the Fever Hospital is not well-equipped with the appropriate investigations and refers flu cases to other hospitals.
In the Cairo International Airport some arrival halls take swine flu precautions, whereas the other halls of arrival feel more relaxed about the so-called pandemic and lack any of the precautions present in hall 3.
On the opposite side one writer on the internet went as far as to say that the World Health Organization used the swine flu propaganda to make up for the false alarm it raised last year on the Avian flu. Claiming that if the Avian flu spreads between humans (which it doesn‘t) it will give rise to a pandemic. As for me, I’m not that keen on conspiracy theories, and I guess we should be grateful to the WHO for the knowledge, but it’s up to us to keep our heads and stay away from panic.