Sunday, August 16, 2009

Swine Flu: Being part of the solution not the problem

Swine Flu, or the H1N1 pandemic, is serious. Deadly serious. It is a situation when unfounded skepticism can literally be life-threathening. HDEO thinks its high time we were all part of the solution.

When catastrophes hit the world - killing people, wreaking havoc, and threatening our way of life - the world responds with its entire means. However, when we can predict a crisis, armed with irrefutable scientific evidence, the sceptics often outnumber those willing to respond.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced a change in how it will continue to monitor and report the influenza H1N1 pandemic (commonly called Swine flu). They are no longer quantifying confirmed cases or numbers of affected countries because “further spread … within affected countries and to new countries, is considered inevitable” but also because of the unprecedented speed at which the virus is spreading. Basically, the inevitability of a global pandemic means its pointless to count any more.

Projections and predictions, in blogs and mainstream media, cover both extremes from dismissing the pandemic as hyped to emphasising worst-case scenarios as the best course of action. Very few query what is needed to prevent the worst from happening - or at least to limit its consequences.

May yet mutate

Neither approval nor scepticism can change the reality that the virus is spreading and affecting more people, and may yet mutate into a more severe form that causes a significant increase in mortality.

The uncertainty about if and when this might happen is in the nature of scientific search for truth. The big question that needs answering now is while we hope for the best, what do we do in preparation for the worst, which might come sooner than we know?

So far, two big solutions are suggested - vaccines and antiviral medications.

First doses of vaccine

The first doses of the vaccine can be available in late September and the most optimistic production estimates are at 4.9 billion doses in the following 12 months, a more conservative estimate puts the production capacity at 1 to 2 billion doses per year.

Experts recommend that priority for vaccination be given to health care workers and high-risk groups, but several rich countries already pre-ordered enough vaccine to cover their entire populations. This means that health workers and at-risk groups in less fortunate parts of the world will have to wait until more vaccines are available. So, if you pay you’re OK and developing countries will yet again be stranded without the best means to combat the pandemic.

Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) is the antiviral medicine that H1N1 responds to now, but this can change rapidly and resistant strains are already appearing. Additionally, with only several million doses available and insufficient production capacity, this is another solution that may also be a case of “if you can pay you’re OK”.

Simple steps to reduce risk

So where does that leave those on modest or average incomes, or the billions who live in poverty, with no health infrastructure, and who are not likely to receive vaccines or medicines?

There are some simple solutions that will make it less likely that you will catch the virus or, should you be infected, to pass it to your friends and family.

If you wash your hands regularly, keep a safe distance from people who might be sick, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze, and avoid crowded areas, you will be less likely to contract the disease. And, If you did contract influenza, you would be less likely to die from it. This is a fact.

A recent survey in the UK showed that only 37 per cent of those surveyed used prevention measures and fewer than five per cent followed avoidance behaviour to protect themselves from influenza.

Why such complacency? The survey concludes that when people believe a threat is real and trust the advice they are given, they are more likely to follow the recommendations. However, if they believe “that the outbreak had been exaggerated” they are less likely to change.

This is a time when unfounded scepticism could be life threatening.

There is a need to promote a culture of prevention. Only when everyone takes responsibility for spreading the word, when people have the knowledge and determination to protect themselves, their families and their neighbours, will we reach a point where we are likely to make a real difference. Such simple gestures can bring about life-saving change.

The planet will not be saved by superheroes but by each one of its own people. Take H1N1 seriously, and know it is not too late to be prepared.

1 comment:

  1. The first two pictures are funny, though! ;-)