Friday, 31 July 2009

Swine flu takes a holiday

This week's swine flu figures leave me more dizzy than if I had taken a course of Tamiflu. There's talk of the outbreak slowing down but also warnings that it will get a lot worse. It's unclear from most reports how the figures are calculated - do the 110,000 new cases include those diagnosed by helpline or website? - and The Guardian refers to four new deaths but these aren't seemingly included in the latest figures. Perhaps this is related to the government's "new way of counting mortality" refererred to last week. If figures are slowing down, that's got to be good news but am I the only one to think of a correlation with the start of the school holidays? Suddenly that sore throat and headache is not so bad afterall as families pack their bags and head off to sunnier climes. Enjoy your holidays - but check which country you're going to: Globally deaths from swine flu have topped 1000. Some countries are not yet affected and looking at the global map, a holiday anywhere but Britain would seem the safest bet.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Here Begins The Plague

Here Begonne the Plage (God Punismet) in Penrith. This is the stark and startling pronoucement in the death register of St Andrew's Church, Penrith in 1597 which I was looking at in Whitehaven Record Office yesterday. Previously the number of deaths each year took up barely half a page in the register but for the six months following this announcement (on September 22) it's just page after page after page of deaths - all marked with a 'P' showing they were killed by plague.

The first death on September 22 is Andrew Hodgson "a stranger" and authors Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan note the occasions when a stranger to the town or traveller is the first to die, leading to their surmise that it was humans rather than rats that helped spread the plague.

However, what really strikes me about gazing on this document is how it's one of the few surviving documents of that dreadful time. In 500 years time what documents will survive of the 2009 swine flu plague - almost certainly not this blog nor any of the other websites that are here today and gone tomorrow. Hopefully the newspapers and a few books but precious little of the personal diaries and accounts - the hopes and fears of the ordinary man.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Man Bites Dog

I worry the regional press are not taking swine flu seriously. They don't have to subscribe to the doom and gloom predictions but judging by the hits swine flu stories are receiving on this website, it's a topic of considerable interest to their readers. And yet the regional press is largely skating over the pandemic. Part of the problem may be having to work a bit hard for the stories. Finding someone with swine flu takes contacts and today's journalists are used to being emailed a press release. Another problem is finding a genuine case. I hear of many 'swine flu' cases but when you interrogate the informant further it's suspected swine flu or Dr Google has diagnosed them. Unless the patient goes in hospital and gets swabbed they could be one of the nine-in-ten who are the worried well with ordinary flu. Generic press releases from the Department of Health are of limited interest because they lack individual human interest stories. As Kirk Douglas points out in that wonderful 'lost' black and white movie, Ace in the Hole, "thousands of Chinese dying from famine is not news but if there's one man trapped in a cave you want to know all about him".

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

How to avoid the plague

This morning a member of staff has reported her husband has swine flu. This is the closest 'friend of a friend' report to date so it's time to look at how to avoid the plague...

I've already noticed a 'siege mentality' beginning to occur in relation to swine flu: Tales of Sainsbury's not issuing Tamiflu because they don't want sick people in their store; and France deporting British school pupils who might have swine flu. It's all been tried before of course. A quick look at the records of the Great Plague and Black Death show numerous attempts by villages to cut themselves off from the outside world, banning anyone who might bring the infection with them. They all failed of course. The only other recourse was to flee north and hope that you outrun it. Time to get on my bike!

And rather timely, The Guardian has a cut-out and keep guide to swine flu in today's paper.

Monday, 27 July 2009

If this is true, it's frightening

Sadly I don't know who Dr David Hill is but he sounds genuine. This was his post to The Barrow Evening Mail recently. It sent a chill down my spine and thought it worth passing on...

"Swine flu if it mutates in the Autumn will be devastating. But the problem is that no one listens, including the media. Swine flu if it mutates to something equivalent to the Spanish flu of 1918/1919 (Spanish flu was a swine flu variant) has the same potential to kill humans on an unprecidented scale as it did 90 years ago. The problem is that both swine and avian are constantly mutating into something different. So by the time you have isolated and made a vaccine for the last one, it has changed again and circumvented the old guard and becomes useless. The problem is that this happens all the time and where drugs become irrelevant. The reason, it takes three months to develop an antidote and 6 months to mass produce and distribute it (a logistic nightmare in itself alone) and where on average therefore the vast majority have to wait 9 months for the cure. The problem is that even in slow coach travel times 1918, the Spanish flu which took between 20 and 100 million lives worldwide (there is no authoritive number but where it is estimated between the two), did its deadliest between week 14 and week 26, some 12 weeks at least before the masses would ever receive the drug cure presently. The 1918 killer flu had a very similar circumstance as today, a mild version before the deadly version arrived in the fall of 1918 with a vengeance. The only way that this deadly killer can be stopped therefore, if anyone is listening out there, is through a complete overhaul of modern farming and husbandry methods and to give considerable financial help to those who breed the livestock that we all eat. Basically as a single example, just stop them sleeping with the animals on cold nights in the tropics as this is how the flu virus passes from pig to chicken to man – eventually; and where the pig is the receptive incubator. Simply give them a heater and fuel, a much cheaper option that global suicide in both human and econmic terms as it will be. For the ‘Tropics’ are where some of the most eminent virologists and micribiologists in the field say is the place where the killer virus will emerge.The philosophy of not letting it happen in the first place. The drugs strategy is futile and it is only a matter of time before the killer strain that will kill literally 100s millions appears. The problem is that the vast profits of drug companies and the government's ignorance to the real facts will be the nails in all our coffins. The statistics and potential speak for themselves,

World Population 2 billion – 1920
Range of deaths
20mil/2billion = 1 in 100
100mil/2billion = 5 in 100

World Population now at 6.8 billion now equates to,
1 in 100 - 70 million min. today
5 in 100 - 340 million max. today
But, these figures could well be higher, as rapid world transit now makes for faster and wider transmission than in 1918.
I therefore say lets start now as I have been saying for the past three years and defeat this mass killer like no other by field work and not the futile drugs strategy that will do very little indeed to save lives. For presently we are all fooling ourselves.

If we put only £50 billion into this field work globally ( a small price for the human nightmare and financial melt-down that a global equivalent to Spanish flu would bring),we could eradicate the situation but where this £50 billion will no doubt end up alternatively in the pockets of the large pharmaceutical companies with little effect whatsoever. Get real everyone before it is basically too late and I am not joking – force governments to change their strategies from something that is impotent presently to something that will eradicate the problem at source. Common sense really but where currently no one seems to have any.

Worryingly also is the fact that as examples of other problems on the horizon is that the United States makes only 20 percent of its flu vaccines it uses and my country Britain makes zero percent of its flu vaccines, as all its flu vaccines are produced abroad. When a killer pandemic happens it will be hard for the producing countries to release any before their own people are serviced. Little known but true (Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota – 16.07.09).

I have been stopped from putting these comments and facts out by the media before. Let’s hope that minds are fully opened now and that the real solution can be heard and not just the bottom-line for drug companies!

Dr David Hill"

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Swine flu jokes

Comedy, said Charlie Chaplin, is tragedy plus distance. And while there's still some distance from the real tragedy that might be swine flu, there is plenty of humour. A variety of swine flu jokes are going round the offices, pubs and playgrounds. Here are just a few...

I called the Swine Flu hotline today but I couldn't get through... all I got was crackling!

Sweating, excessive body odour and laziness. No wonder it went unnoticed for so long in Mexico.

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I have Swine Flu
And now so do you

Friday, 24 July 2009

It's going to get worse

Friday, July 24: It's going to get worse.

Looking at this week's swine flu figures released by the Department of Health, you are left with more questions than answers. The bullet points are:
  • 100,000 new cases in just one week
  • 840 in hospital
  • 63 in a critical condition
  • England death toll to date: 26.
Strangely, the BBC notes that the government has changed the way it counts mortality. I'm not sure what they mean by that. If you're dead, your dead! These figures are bad enough but if you bear in mind that the 840 in hospital are not spread evenly across the country but most likely focused on the hotspots of London, West Midlands and Leicester then it's even more worrying. And 100,000 cases a week is not to be sneezed at (if you'll pardon the pun). News reporters last night on TV were trying to reassure the public by pointing out the vast majority get flu and then recover but even they were having to admit that this is only the start - things are likely to get much worse in the winter.

I'm also getting worried about the journalist shorthand "underlying health problems" as in "Mr X died but he had underlying health problems" as though that makes it all right. Just what are underlying health problems? Pneumonia or slight asthma. If asthma counts as underlying health problems a lot more of us are in touble - including me!

Anyway, we'll all be okay now there's yet another new website. It is at Am I the only person baffled as to why they set up such a major website as a sub-section of rather than give it it's own easily memorable web address. Another sign of the government putting this together at the last minute with insufficient preparation?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Time to panic

I'm struck by the similarities between how the public react today to swine flu and how they have reacted in the past to similar pandemics such as the plague and Black Death. For a start there's that 'air of inevitably'. We think we're so clever these days with advances in medical science but the same sense of foreboding by folk in the plague years of the 17th century is still felt today. It's coming and there's precious little we can do about it.

With the plague in mind, I was intrigued to see this story in The Daily Telegraph which talks about 400-year-old plague laws being revived by the church to allow intinction (that's where the bread used in communion can be dipped into the wine rather than everyone sharing the same goblet - but you knew that didn't you). How long before we start allowing mass burials or red crosses to be daubed on people's doors?!

Which is the bigger problem? Members of staff who 'skive off' work for two weeks just because they have a sore throat but say it might be swine flu or members of staff who bravely come in to work even though they are coughing, sneezing and obviously infected with something horrible? Answers on a postcard...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

So that's how swine flu started

This innocent picture from pre-swine flu days is proving popular on the internet at the moment! I thought I'd share it with you.

It seems more and more people I meet have 'friends of friends' who have "got swine flu". They almost certainly mean they have got "suspected swine flu" since no one is tested for swine flu unless they make it into hospital. And the problem now is that no one has a cold or ordinary flu, everyone has swine flu.

Having said on a previous blog that the Welsh seem impervious to swine flu, new figures released show a quadruple increase in swine flu cases in Wales. I've cancelled my move to Wales as a way of avoiding swine flu.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What are we going to tell the children?

There's been tons written on swine flu over the last few months but there's one topic few journalists have been brave enough to tackle: What do we tell the children? Do we tell them there's a potentially fatal disease heading this way and scare them to death? Or do we tell them nothing and hope they don't ask too many questions? I can find next to nothing on this on the web. Anyone want to volunteer some advice?

Some information has been issued aimed at children blowing their nose properly. This comes under the guise of the government's Dirty Bertie, a cartoon character who doesn't "catch it, bin it and kill it". Strangely, I found this hidden away on Cumbria County Council's website - you might expect a big button on their home page saying "Swine Flu" but there's nothing. Instead you have to search their site long and hard for Dirty Bertie. Part of the cartoon is pictured top left on this blog but I wonder how effective it really is. I've not seen any child or adult it "catch it, bin it and kill it" in the last few months despites millions of pounds being spent on the advertising campaign and everyone apparently scared stiff about swine flu.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Miracle Cures (Part 1)

Another day, another government website devoted to swine flu is launched. One likes to think the government have had an action plan in place for years to cope with a pandemic but the knee-jerk response of launching hotlines and websites every few days seems to suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile the first 'miracle cure' press release arrives in my Inbox. Or it would have done if the sender had remembered to attach it (or perhaps my antivirus software deleted it). There is, of course, no shortage of miraclue cures for swineflu on the internet already. Here's just one I found by googling swine flu and 'cure':

"The answer to AIDS, hepatitis A,B and C, malaria, herpes, TB, most cancer and many more of mankind’s worse diseases has been found. As Swine Flu starts to gather worldwide attention many practioners in alternative medicine already know there is a concrete defense to protect yourself and your family. If your uncomfortable about being given a government manadatory vacination you need to know what your options are for yourself and family protection. MMS is an emerging grass roots formula that has been shown to kill Cancer, Aids, Malaria stone dead amongst many other virus type diseases."

So there you go, panic over. Cure yourself not just of swine flu but also cancer, aids and malaria. The only mystery is why doctors aren't using this miracle on a daily basis. Or how about this 'cure' which leaves the surprising identity of the medicine until the last line:

"Please tell everyone you know about this cure, it is a lot more powerful than any medication in the world right now, and it should kill the swine flu virus almost imediately. Of course, anyone who is sick should still continue to take his doctor's prescribed medications, but this cure should definitely be added to them, it is almost like a miracle and it will rid the body of the virus very quickly, especially if it is taken at the first signs of the flu. This miracle cure is GREEN TEA."

I don't know about you but I'm off to put the kettle on...

P.S. Anyone else noticed that the Welsh seem to be immune to swine flu?!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The sign on my local doctor's surgery in Whitehaven.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The mathematics of swine flu

Having worked on Psychic News in the past, I know just how reliable predictions can be ("There Will Be No War - Psychic News headline in August 1939). And the "65,000 swine flu deaths predicted" headlines of yesterday have now given way to more sensible reasoning (see The Guardian story). Any editor/sub-editor knows that once journalists start talking about statistics it's time to start the alarm bells. Journalists do words - not figures. And the government figures needed the cool cynicism of journalism that deadline pressure just did not allow. Blame the 'instant news now' culture of this multi media world. It turns out of course that you might just as well have made up your own figure and you were as likely to be right. The 65,000 was a worst-case scenario (still based on guesswork). A more intelligent guess is about 3,000 deaths. Which means you're more likely to die falling down stairs or crossing the road on the way to get Tamiflu than you are to die from swine flu itself. This swine flu story has a life of its own that's going to sweep common sense out fo the way.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Lies, damned lies and statistics

Woke up to the news that swine flu deaths in the UK had lept to 29 and the government is predicting total death toll will reach anywhere between "3,000 and 65,000". That top figure is pretty frightening but how did they come to such a wide variation in figures? I strongly suspect some very dubious mathematics and look forward to the next Bad Science column in The Guardian.

P.S. Just found this article by Fergus Walsh who seems to share my cynicism of statistics. See also his What Are The Chances of Dying From Swine Flu.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Small beginnings

Predictions of a pandemic had become so common - and so often came to nothing - that the reports in March 2009 of Mexicans falling ill from 'swine flu' first only merited a paragraph or two in the papers. But by today (July 16th 2009) the World Health Organization has now declared a pandemic and the disease is truly global. What was at first treated with humour is now treated with nervousness as the first people in the UK die from the disease and, despite government assurances, parents pull their children out of school where there is even a rumour of swine flu.

I'm a deputy editor on The Whitehaven News in Whitehaven, Cumbria UK - a part of the world so close to the edge of the map that it seemed impossible swine flu would ever have any impact here. But this diary will follow its progression in the fine tradition of Daniel Defoe's A Journal Of the Plague Year.

This diary is being started now because 'management' have asked that a swine flu section be set up on my newspaper's website. To date there have only been a handful of confirmed cases (but lots of people with unconfirmed cases); the problem for journalists is that no swabs are taken until people become really ill. For the majority of people they 'may' have swine flu but if they recover from it quickly - as most do - no one will ever know for sure if they had it or not.

Also today, Seascale School decided to close early (summer holidays start in a few days) after the mother of pupils fell ill with (suspected?) swine flu. The governors admitted that, despite government advice to the contrary, they were closing the school. Probably wise. Even if they had kept it open, few parents would have risked sending their children now a six-year-old in London has died from swine flu.