Monday, August 17, 2009

Swine flu over the cuckoo's nest

Swine flu suddenly grabs headlines in Bombay around 10 days ago. Schools are closed for several days, partly it seems due to a movement by a local political party (whose members understandably resent anyone being given an education). People start wearing masks on the street, even dirty handkerchiefs. I wonder how they continue to spit despite the masks (maybe there's a hole in the middle for that?), but India's oldest habit continues unabated. Antiviral drugs are stockpiled. Anyone who dares to sneeze is sent home (unlike in China where they are locked up instead).

And then comes the reversal. Suddenly we look around and notice that pretty much no one is dead. The papers tell us most of those who died of swine flu had other complications. We realise that people die of other kinds of flu, as well as malaria and other treatable diseases, on a regular basis. We now begin to hear that Tamiflu has side effects and its indiscriminate use may help the virus develop resistance. So it's not recommended other than for serious cases. What is recommended if you get a flu that might be swine flu? Umm, Crocin and bed rest.

When stupidity reigns, one clutches at the hope that someone somewhere is in command of the situation. But cuckoo behaviour about swine flu has been quite similar across countries and continents. In the UK, here is what Oxford University researchers had to say:

"... antivirals are not a "magic bullet" against flu, and ... resistance to the drug could develop, making it useless to fight any future and potentially more serious pandemic flu strain."

However, The Guardian informs us that:

"...ministers pressed ahead with a policy of mass prescription, fearing the public would not tolerate being told that the millions of doses of Tamiflu held by the state could not be used during a pandemic..."

In other words, we must give the masses something now, even if it will damage their long-term health prospects, because it's not politically expedient to do otherwise.

I can understand why politicians (in democracies) need to take this approach. It's a survival tactic. But one wishes the general public, guided by wise opinion-makers from the medical as well as journalistic professions, would learn not to trade long-term health for a short-term -- and illusory -- sense of security.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Nice post and brilliant title. Will link.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Thanks Rahul! I do seem to have struck a chord with the title.. my good friend Sudipta Mukherji sent me this mail today (hope he won't mind my posting it here):


appreciated so much particularly the heading of your write up
on flu so much..

Jack Nicholson....Jack Nicholson.....Ja.....