Brian Reyes

Braced for flu.

In Gibraltar on July 25, 2009 at 4:40 pm

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I have mixed feelings about this swine flu thing. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, worry or take the mickey. It’s partly because of the mixed signals we get. Reassurance on the one hand, doomsday scenarios on the other.

“Comparing flu’s with flu’s, this is a pretty mild illness,” said one doctor I spoke to recently. “Some people may have already had it and thought it was nothing more than a bad summer cold.”

But in the same breath he’s talking about containment strategies, about the need for strict hygiene to avoid infection, about vulnerable groups most at risk, about huge numbers getting sick.

Frankly, it’s all rather daunting.

In the UK, health officials are warning that the flu may infect up to 30% of the population and kill up to 60,000 people. ‘But there’s no need for alarm,’ they quickly add. ‘Panicking will only put more burden on the NHS.’ That’s OK then…

We have two cases in Gib now and in all likelihood, it’s going to spread. Last year, a measles outbreak here spread so fast that health officials even wrote a paper about it in a medical journal.

I was in the Primary Care Centre interviewing the health minister the other day and the message was very much the same, cautious reassurance coupled with extensive, behind-the-scenes contingency planning for a worst case scenario. Whichever way this thing pans out, at least the health people appear ready for it: a separate clinic, protective gear that makes nurses look like aliens, ample stocks of Tamiflu, vaccines on order.

There was something decidedly odd about the flu clinic. The prospect of a pandemic is serious, no doubt, but we all felt slightly ridiculous walking around in masks, taking notes while doctors tested two snuffly patients in closed cubicles. (One newsroom wiseguy came up with a good headline for the occasion: ‘Hacks break out in rashers following swine flu visit!’ Quite…)

While I waited for the interview, I was browsing through the leaflets in the PCC. Below a sign on the wall giving advice about swine flu, I saw a pile of literature on bird flu. Remember that? Six months ago, it felt like the world was about to be swept by an apocalyptic feathered plague that would do for us all. Now it’s swine flu. What next? (“Fake flu,” remarked someone yesterday, relishing the prospect of a couple of weeks off work.)

Let’s take a step back and try to get some perspective in all this. There have been 30 swine flu deaths in the UK so far, most involving underlying medical causes. Every year, up to 9,000 people die from common seasonal flu.

If you listen to what the experts say, then, for the vast majority of us, this swine flu epidemic is going to be relatively inconsequential. A fever, sore limbs, a few days in bed feeling like death warmed up.

As The Independent on Sunday pointed out in a leader, if we hand’t read about it in the papers, we would probably be none the wiser about the flu pandemic.

Fingers crossed they got it right.

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