Brief Notes on H1N1

January 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized)

H1N1 has been covered in far greater detail elsewhere than I can here. So, here are a few observations instead.

Five years ago, I read Mike Davis’ truly terrifying book, The Monster at our door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. In the book, Davis details the number of flu pandemics and near misses since the Spanish flu epidemic after the First World War. (If you watched this week’s episode of Fringe, you can’t have been too happy either)

During the SARS outbreaks in Toronto in 2003, there was a palatable fear in the air. If you wanted a seat on the bus, just wear a mask. People weren’t sure if you had SARS or were just being careful, but nobody wanted to take a chance. God forbid you were Chinese and coughing in public – people were ready to have you quarantined on the spot. It was like living in The Andromeda Strain.

I visited a hospital two days before the second outbreak. This put me into the monitor but not quarantine category.  When I told colleagues at work about this , I could see them inching away (for the record, I didn’t get SARS).

 And then things were fairly quiet. Until H1N1.

H1N1 is a subtype of the influenza A virus. Like the regular seasonal flu, it’s quite contagious, and like the regular flu it’s nasty, possibly because it’s a new strain for which many seem to have lower rates of immunity. However, according to the U.S. Centers for  Disease Control, every year in the U.S. between 5 to 20% of the population gets the flu. About 200,000 are hospitalized as a result, and roughly 36,000 die. Every year. At time of writing various estimates exist, but it seems as if 13,000 people globally have died of Swine flu. 

 I still see the ads on TV urging me to get an H1N1 shot, but somehow they lack the urgency of the pre-Christmas frenzy. What with earthquakes in Haiti, meltdowns on NBC and the impending prospect of the Winter Olympics, who can find the time or energy to be excited about a flu bug? Davis’ book suggests that there have been numerous ‘almost spanish flu like epidemics’ , and perhaps this has been one of them too.

The thing which strikes me about this particular epidemic is the level of skepticism.

I should fess up right away, I haven’t had a flu shot. Why? Basically, I’m lazy. I couldn’t be bothered going down to a clinic to get a shot. If someone had stopped me on the street or in my workplace (more sanitary) and offered me a shot, I probably would have gotten it. It’s interesting to consider the reasons people have advanced for not getting it: 

  • The religious.  Elements within the more devout Christian community  view all vaccinations as suspicious. I’ve always wondered about this, and would like to know where in the Bible it disavows vaccinations. This fear of the scientific is mirrored in sections of Muslim thought too, where some have argued that they can’t use the hand sanitizer because it has alcohol in it (er, you don’t drink it)
  • The professional conspiracy theorists.  Others argue essential this is a  manufactured crisis, and basically a government plot to control the population and to sell things. I received more than one email arguing that H1N1 more or less did not exist, and it was all a plot by the pharmaceutical industry and Donald Rumsfeld to sell drugs to a gullible public. 
  • The skeptic. A more general distrust of government.
  • The know-nothing element. I read more than one letter in the paper which said something to the effect of , “well, my grandmother never got shots and she lived to be 95 years old, so I don’t need them either.”

When people ask me if I had a shot or I got the kids vaccinated, I often feel the need to explain, “Well, no, but for…(any of the above reasons).”  

Last year in Canada, the government and the news media led a panic- mode broadcast:

GET A SHOT! GET A SHOT! YOU’LL DIE IF YOU DON’T

After several weeks of this message, a new one replaced it

THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TO GO ROUND!
 THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TO GO ROUND!
THERE”S NOT ENOUGH TO GO ROUND

Predictably, this led to wide-spread panic, with people queuing for hours along with their small children to get a shot. In addition, there were displays of populist rage as people deemed undeserving got shots while others did not (health care professionals were deemed deserving, but when hospital directors and private schools got them too, many, even those who wouldn’t have got a shot, felt somewhat annoyed)

I had polio shots and all the others when I was a kid. When the chicken pox vaccine came out, I had my kids vaccinated. Yet, the level of distrust of this vaccine is incredible; no doubt though, this has been re-enforced by reports of people receiving too high a dose along with negative reactions to the vaccine.

The times we live in.

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