‘Swine flu’ are two words that prompt a response in everybody, be it abject fear, a knowledgeable stream of gossip or a smirk of derision. And why shouldn’t it? A pandemic is a pretty big deal, and thanks to the media and our own insatiable need to panic, we’ve made this one a massive deal.
A pandemic is different to an epidemic, in that a pandemic is a global issue whereas an epidemic is contained within an area.
There are prerequisites for pandemic influenza: little existing immunity within the population, significant clinical illness upon infection by the virus, and efficient spread from person to person. The lack of the final requirement is the reason why bird flu never became a global pandemic.
Initial alarms this year were raised sometime in April, following an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory illness (later to be termed swine flu) in Mexico. A pig farm was blamed; human-to-human transmission wasn’t yet an issue. Then, ominous figures were released (reaching something like two hundred deaths out of over two thousand infections in Mexico), ticking both our first two requirements.
Soon, cases appeared in the US and Canada, and then in Europe. On April 26th, a couple returning from their honeymoon in Mexico became the first cases in the UK. And on the 30th April, WHO announced we had hit the mysterious ‘Phase 5’. I remember watching the news in May, half-heartedly hoping for the cancellation of all my exams – this did not happen (which in hindsight is probably a good thing).
The mysterious Phase 5 is defined by WHO as the level just before a full-blown pandemic; there is human-to-human transmission, but it is localised. This means that the virus was much better adapted at hopping between humans. Thus our final box was ticked, and on the 11th June, we reached the final level – Phase 6, a global pandemic.
It all sounds rather deep and terrifying, but to be honest, we were due for a pandemic for a while, and they’re very natural, unavoidable events. In fact, we’ve been reasonably lucky this time, considering that the majority of people actually recover without any treatment – and one in three won’t realise they’ve had it. Symptoms in most cases, at worst, mimic those of a bout of ‘normal’ flu. People are dying, but not that many. Also, seasonal flu kills thousands every year. Considering previous pandemics, such as the Spanish flu of 1918, when over 50 million people were killed within two years, we’ve got off lightly – so far.
Of course, reactions round the world varied – whilst Egypt culled their entire 400,000 strong pig population, Israel condemned the moniker ‘Swine Flu’ as offensive to Jews, instead insisting it be called ‘Mexican flu’. All the Boars in the Iraqi zoo were slaughtered, but in the similarly unsettled state of Afghanistan, an armed guard was supplied for the nation’s only pig, resident in Kabul zoo.
To avoid spreading it, remember the basic rules (wash your hands regularly, avoid public ‘gatherings’, etc) and everyone around you will probably be fine. As for avoiding catching it – there’s no point trying. Just go about your daily business and wherever possible, avoid being sneezed on.