Monday, 30 November 2009

Is jab a cure for headaches?

My colleague at work was off to have her swine flu jab today so was questioning me about the side effects. Fortunately the wonderful David McCandless and his Information is Beautiful website came to the rescue. I was able to point out that the side effects included a sore arm, muscle aches, headache, a general feeling of being under the weather... and then pointed out that they were also the side effects you got from the placebo! In fact as David's chart above shows, you actually have less chance getting a headache from the jab than you do from the placebo. Since my colleague is prone to headaches, the idea that the jab might actually prevent her getting headaches quite appealed! Just call me Dr Cleaver!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

UK swine flu statistics

As Sunday is my 'day off', I'm very grateful to Celvin who has posted (below) figures for UK nationally, sorted by region. It makes for a useful and interesting read. Just the sort of information the UK government should be making easily accessible! Talking of which, Jonathan also comments at the end of this column on reliable data on deaths among pregnant women with swine flu. I quickly stumbled across these figures on Bradford NHS website but if anyone has more relevant stats please post them below.
The figures for deaths in pregnant women (as at Thursday 12 November) with which swine flu was associated (including deaths shortly after birth as well as before or during) are:
England: 6
Scotland: 2
Wales: 1
NI: 1
Total: 10
Total swine flu related deaths in the UK – 124

England: death rate by region
As of 18 November 2009, there were 142 confirmed H1N1 deaths in England.
The deaths were distributed by regions as follows :
North West : 21
North East : 7
Yorkshire and The Humber : 13
West Midlands : 23
East Midlands : 6
South West : 8
South East : 11
London : 45
East of England : 8
Population, as of mid-year 2008 (official ONS data)
North West : 6,875,700
North East : 2,575,500
Yorkshire and The Humber : 5,213,200
West Midlands : 5,411,100
East Midlands : 4,433,000
South West : 5,209,200
South East : 8,380,100
London : 7,619,800
East of England : 5,728,700
ENGLAND : 51,446,200
Death rate (number of deaths per million inhabitants) as of 18 November 2009
North West : 3.05
North East : 2.72
Yorkshire and The Humber : 2.49
West Midlands : 4.25
East Midlands : 1.35
South West : 1.54
South East : 1.31
London : 5.91
East of England : 1.40
England average : 2.76

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The curry house theory

While sitting in my local curry house last night my dinner guest came up with a theory that might explain the apparently mild swine flu but a growing death rate: Swine flu isn't that mild. The official figures always warn of the problem in trying to find out exact figures of swine flu and if they are badly wrong that would level out the death rate. If we're seriously underestimating the swine flu cases then the high death rate is not so unexpected. It's only a theory but seems sound to me.

Friday, 27 November 2009

And the not-so bad news...

I thought I'd better look at the reports on the Canadian situation where they have withdrawn a batch of the swine flu vaccine. The BBC generally prove reliable so here's the link to their report. The bad reactions reported include breathing problems, increased heart rate and skin rashes. The vaccine has not been withdrawn in its entirely but just one bath of 170,000 doses. And the bad reactions have been experienced by one in 20,000 people. So we're not talking big numbers and we're not talking major side effects. Even so, it's going to feed the paranoia of those already convinced the vaccine is the devil incarnate.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

First the good news...

There is some good news with the release of the latest swine flu data from the Health Protection Agency (Week 48). But, sadly, also some bad. There has only been a slight increase in influenza consultation activity in England and stable or a decrease in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The 'rumour' of an increase in swine flu activity in the south is borne out by the latest HPA figures. Although there is an increase in the hospitalisation rate of under fives, there is a decrease across the board. But the bad news is leap of 36 deaths across the UK to 240 - I'll need to double-check but I think that's the biggest weekly rise in deaths since swine flu began. It shows that while the illness is mild for most people, for a minority it is fatal. And there's also the throwaway remark that a batch of swine flu vaccine in Canada has been withdrawn because of higher than expected reports of adverse reactions. Cue The Daily Mail.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Plagues and rumours of plagues

There's always going to be a problem with a pandemic like swine flu - rumours and increased background noise are going to create their own problems. That's what seems to be going on in the south at the moment with The Portsmouth News reporting that increased 999 calls from people who think they have swine flu are putting untolerable pressure on the ambulance service. It little matters that most of the calls turn out to be "only ordinary flu". The problem of increased pressure on the ambulance service continues. If flu-like illnesses rise as the winter progresses so will the problems. To be clear: If you are struggling to breathe or have tightness in your chest, call an ambulance. If you also have flu symptoms go to the National Pandemic Flu Service at or call 0800 1 513 100.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Swine flu jab for flood workers

Whitehaven in West Cumbria, UK from where I write this blog, has thankfully escaped the floods sweeping the rest of the county. But it's still raining and the Met Office has issued another flash severe weather warning for this part of the world. In fact, there are only two major stories as far as this website is concerned: floods and swine flu. So it was probably inevitable that the two should combine at some point. Today it's been announced that flood workers (which includes the media covering the floods) are to be offered jabs for swine flu, winter flu and the other horribles that swirl around after floods. To quote Dr John Howarth,NHS Cumbria’s lead GP for Cockermouth: “We know from experience that the risk of respiratory infections can increase following floods. This is why it’s important that we provide protection for those vital people who are working tirelessly to help the residents of Cockermouth to recover from this disastrous situation." You can donate money to the flood victims at Cumbria Community Foundation.

Monday, 23 November 2009

First report of a death after taking vaccine

It's a story just made for The Daily Mail: Patient dies after being given swine flu vaccine. Suitably scary and "I told you so" all at the same time. My first reaction is "Well, they would wouldn't they." I mean, unless the vaccine is also a cure for death then people are going to continue dying - it's a given. The Daily Mail article is suspiciously short but The Daily Telegraph reporter kindly goes on to explain that there may not be a link between the person dying and the vaccine. One is reminded of the Coventry girl who died having received the cervical cancer jab. Despite the initial scare stories it turned out the poor girl had a dreadful tumour and could have died at any moment. We're back in the numbers game. The Daily Telegraph reports that if "ten million people were vaccinated there would be six sudden deaths". Let's wait a bit before we hit the panic button.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Information is beautiful

As Sunday is my day off, I usually 'delegate' the blog in the form of recommending a fellow blogger. I've often talked about the presentation of facts and figures in meaningful ways, particularly in regard to swine flu. So I have no hesitation in pointing you in the direction of and in particular it's graphics on swine flu. If only all statisticians worked in this way!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Actually, I do want to scare you

Actually, I say I don't wish to scare people but sometimes I think making swine flu a bit more scarier might encourage people to think more carefully about having the vaccination. Few people I speak to are basing their decision as to whether they have it or not on any carefully-reasoned basis; it's a purely emotional decision. Pregnant women instinctively feel they shouldn't have the jab even though all the science says they should. And having decided not to have the jab, they then allow the neighbours' kids into their home - a frighteningly stupid thing to do given how children are the ones spreading swine flu. And today there is news of Tamiflu-resistant swine flu being identified in Wales (remember when we thought Wales was proving immune to swine flu?!). Just to frighten you all a bit more, I've posted a graph above illustrating the leaps in death rates each week from swine flu in the UK. Still don't want the jab?

H1N1 cuddly toys

It's okay - I've found the ideal Christmas present: Giant cuddly toys of the H1N1 virus, bird flu virus, black death and even The Clap! It comes courtesy of Giantmicrobes website and is a stroke of pure genius!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Tough-decision time for parents

Swine flu stays top of the news agenda again today with the UK government announcing that healthy under-five year-olds to be offered the swine flu vaccination. The plan is unveiled as it's revealed that 21 per cent of swine flu deaths in England are of children under the age of 14. The government also point to the number of children who catch and spread the swine flu virus. Given the problems of getting adults to vaccinate themselves, don't be too surprised when figures are revealed showing how few parents want their child vaccinated.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Pay-back time

Making headline news today is a survey by Pulse magazine which says more than half (54 per cent) of patients are rejecting the swine flu jab.  First, it should be said that this is a survey of only 107 GPs but it's still a worrying statistic. The vaccine is not compulsory in the UK and it's up to individuals to make their choice. But a Nottingham GP is reporting only one in 20 pregnant women having the jab which - given the number of high-profile deaths of pregnant women is particularly worrying for a government keen to see as many people as possible get vaccinated. The reasons for refusal given fall into two main categories: worries about side effects and "it's only mild". My gut feeling is this is payback time for a government that has carried out a hush-hush policy on swine flu deaths. The problem is perhaps that people are concerned about side effects from the vaccine. But it's probably also a case that they're not scared enough of the swine flu. As long as anonymous statistics die from swine flu instead of real people, and as long as those deaths only happen to "people with underlying health problems" then the public are going to reason that it's never going to happen to them or anyone in their 'real' world. Health officials have jealously guarded details of swine flu deaths - sometimes refusing to say even if the person who died was a man or woman. So they can't complain too much if the public decide against vaccinations - and the death toll (already at 180) keeps on rising.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A jab - and make it snappy!

Typical. If it's free, our photographers want it! Our neighbouring doctors' surgery has begun giving the swine flu jab to those in at-risk groups and were kind enough to off themselves up for a photo-call. And since our photographers were due to be jabbed anyway they were happy to oblige. Pictured is Dr Graham Ironside receiving his swine flu jab - and it's worth mentioning the only side effect is a slightly sore arm; the urban myth that you then catch the flu is nonsense as the vaccine is 'dead' and cannot give you flu.

Monday, 16 November 2009

North-west winning the fight

Although the national picture on swine flu is mixed, the north-west seems to be winning this round at least in the fight against the spread of swine flu.The number of people in North West hospitals in connection with swine flu has fallen again over the past week; there were 117 people in hospital with symptoms last Thursday (down from 124 last week), and of the current inpatients 49 have underlying health conditions (down from 64 last week); there are currently 27 people with swine flu symptoms in critical care (down from 29 last week).
Dr Ruth Hussey, North West Director for Public Health said, “This is welcome news. However I would still encourage people to stay on top of the virus and be aware of what to do should they become ill with swine flu this winter. Practising good respiratory and hand hygiene is vital to stop the spread of the virus. And if you are normally healthy and you think you could have swine flu, stay at home to avoid spreading the virus, call the NPFS for a diagnosis and get a flu friend to pick up your anti-viral medication.”

Hats off the staff of NHS Cumbria for their good work. Long may it continue.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Even the pope is doing it

Black elderberry as a cure for or prevention of swine flu seems to be popular in high places. According to a number of sources even the Pope has been stockpiling the stuff to fight swine flu. There are plenty of claims going around for the stuff but, as far as I can see, very little scientific evidence. Perhaps it's as much a belief as Catholicism.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The latest miracle cure: black elderberry

During my time writing this blog I have collected a variety of the 'miracle' cures for swine flu ranging from green tea, oinions and Welsh whisky. Now there's another one to tell you about: black elderberry. Unlike most other miracle cures, however, this one has an actual scientific study to back it up - and it's online so you can read it for yourself to make up your own mind. You'll find it online at Strangely it's got "confidential" stamped across the front page. The summary on the home page of the website says: "During an in-vitro study carried out in London by Retroscreen Virology in October 2009, black elderberry extract was found to be at least 68.37% effective against the H1N1 strain otherwise known as Swine Flu Pandemic strain." It doesn't say whether it's suppossedly effective at preventing you catching swine flu, getting rid of it once you have it or both. Us mere mortals need to know whether pouring black elderberry juice on swine flu cells in a test-tube equatest to a 'cure'. I'd like to think so but I've read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre so my cynical levels are off the scale at the moment. Maybe I'll stikc to Tamiflu. (Picture by OliBac - Creative Commons License)

Friday, 13 November 2009

The UK holds its breath

The HPA points out that most of the UK  were on half-term last week (but not Scotland) so they might have been hoping for a bigger break in the swine flu figures than they got. Week 46 does show a small drop in new cases and hospitalisations but deaths have taken a leap going up from 151 to 180. Scotland is usually the spike in the graph but in fact they only had one death and Wales had the spike with deaths jumping from 8 to 14. Here are the last few weeks death figures with the increase given in the last column:

Week 46 - 180 - 29
Week 45 - 151 - 16
Week 44 - 135 - 16
Week 43 - 119 - 14
Week 42 - 105 - 15
Week 41 - 90 - 6
Week 40 - 84 - 2
Week 39 - 82 - 4

The figures are open to interpretation of course but at first glance it would suggest that half-term has not been the fire-break most would have hoped. And schools are now back.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Swine flu and spam

I get very little spam on my AOL or work accounts but it's not been too surprising to see emails in my inbox with a subject line about swine flu which is just an advert for Viagra or some miracle cure. McAFee monitor this kind of stuff and I thought you'd be amused by some of the popular subject lines:

First US swine flu victims!
US swine flu statistics
Salma Hayek caught swine flu!
Swine flu worldwide!
Swine flu in Hollywood!
Swine flu in USA
Madonna caught swine flu!

I've even got a graph about it. Anyone got a vaccine for spam??!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Make or break time

These two headlines show the discrepancy in swine flu predictions at the moment:
Pandemic? What flu pandemic?
Swine Flu Deaths in Europe Doubling Weekly, Health Agency Says
On the one hand people are talking about the 'half-term effect' resulting in swine flu levelling off. But then they are also starting to warn of a third wave in January. Perhaps it's just that the vaccinations are proving effective?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A swine-flu free Christmas

My family keep asking me what I want for Christmas so I thought I'd challenge them by asking them for something swine-flu related. Of course I already have my mug (see picture above) but I wonder what else I might receive. A thermometer would be useful. Vital for diagnosing swine flu of course. A large box of tissues might be useful or how about some healthy vitamins to help stave off the flu in the first place. Any one else any ideas?!

I'm happy to promote a fellow blogger in eastern Europe who shares my passion for sharing information on swine flu. He's posted below but his website/blog is at

Monday, 9 November 2009

Insuring against swine flu

People preparing for a winter break and heading to the sun will want to know whether their travel insurance covers them for swine flu. The short answer, I'm glad to report, is yes. But check the Association of British Insurers site before you travel or try to claim.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A charm against swine flu

I've always enjoyed the number of goldfinches that visit my garden each day - sometimes as many as 15 in one go. But I've now discovered that the collective noun for goldfinches is a 'charm' which came about because it was believed that they could ward off the Black Death. Perhaps I don't need vaccination against swine flu after all!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

How bonkers is this

The latest swine flu death in Scotland is of an adult from the Ayrshire and Arran area. Authorities are not releasing the gender "for reasons of confidentiality". Has this country gone completely bonkers. One can understand the family not wanting the name of the person released but is saying the person is male or female really going to cause them any grief. Are reporters, on hearing it's a man, going to knock on the door every every family who have recently had a man die in the hopes of an exclusive interview?! We can laugh at the Ukraine or other countries for not telling their public what's happening with swine flu but it pales into comparison with the culture of swine flu secrecy in the UK. I post up again (above) the comparison with what data we get now with what people were told during the Black Death! I suspect Scottish authorities are not releasing details because if it's found out that the person who died worked at a children's nursery there might be a certain amount of panic among parents. But judging by the death rate in Scotland from swine flu a little bit of panic might actually do some good in encouraging people to get vaccinated. Thirty years in journalism, and I've never come across anything as bonkers as this.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Strange Days

It's been a strange week. Topped perhaps by the phone call I've just from a gentleman reporting a strange light in the sky over Whitehaven last night. It might have been a UFO of course but considering last night was November 5th (Guy Fawkes Night) when the whole of Britain set off fireworks, I don't think we're going to need Mulder and Scully to solve this particular case.
It's also been a strange week for swine flu with only a small increase in the number of cases but a 'snowballing' (to quote chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson) of cases in intensive care. Deaths have also risen by 16 to 151. That's 105 in England, 31 in Scotland, 10 in Northern Ireland and eight in Wales. The mathematically acute among you will note that adds up to 154, not 151. I'm guessing the discrepancy arises in when each country in the UK announces its figures and the 'extra' ones are people who have died since the official figures came out in that specific country. Or it could just be a cock-up.
There's likely to have been the half-term effect. Schools in England have been on half-term reducing the likely spread of the virus. The holiday was only one week long though.
And finally there's the strange happenings in the Ukraine and the announcement that a cat has, for the first time, caught swine flu.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes - the swine flu connection

Did swine flu 'do it' for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators? New photographic evidence (above) seems to suggest it might have done! For those living out side the UK, today is bonfire night in Britain when  we light bonfires and set off fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes' failed attempt to blow up parliament.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The politics of swine flu

It's becoming clear that much of what is happening in the Ukraine is down to the politics of swine flu. Politics is also rearing its head in Northern Ireland with discussion of when details of swine flu deaths should be released. The Belfast News Letter is sharing my frustration at getting details confirmed (and so alerting the public) Health Minister Michael McGimpsey says he is just following the UK practice of weekly briefings but I'm not sure that's right. Scotland appears to confirm details as soon as they are known. I say "details" but of course it's usually along the lines of "someone, somewhere in Scotland has died from swine flu. We can't tell you whether it's a man, woman, how old they were or anything useful but 'they did have significant health problems'. And we're not telling you what those significant problems were". You get the picture. Glasnost it ain't. It's no good health authorities not telling the public when full-of-health Mr Smith who lives two doors away and was a teacher in your local school has died of swine flu and then expecting the public to have credibility in those same authorities when they urge people to get vaccinated.

My death list remains up-to-date as possible but I fear that the rate of deaths is now too high to keep the list going for much longer.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Strange goings-on in the Ukraine

First, I've updated my swine flu deaths list with the Wigan mother who died shortly after giving birth (the baby's okay). It's another sad case and surely no pregnant woman is going to risk not having the vaccine after this and other high-profile deaths of pregnant women? But now to strange events in the Ukraine. Type 'swine flu Ukraine' into Google news and you'll see unfolding some extraordinary events. Nearly 70 people have died from swine flu according to the authorities (in the UK the total is 135 so I'm not sure why that's worried them so much) but they're closing schools, universities, banning public meetings and you can't buy a face mask for love nor money. People are apparently turning to old folklore remedies (it's the onions again!). Some Western commentators are bemoaning that the Ukraine is asking the world for help but not giving any deatils about why these 70 people died or any background information (Good grief! They should try getting information about UK deaths - it makes the Ukraine look like a role model in openness!). Here's a link to one article giving an overview but Google news will provide much more.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Postal strike?

There appears to be discussion in the UK about how the postal strike in this country might affect swine flu vaccination, specifically the letters going out from GP surgeries to those on the at-risk register. This might be simplistic but can't the surgery just ring them up?!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The anti-vaccination militia

The vaccine against swine flu has always had its opponents but since it's not compulsory it's never really had any raison d'etre. However, a group calling itself The People's United Community have gone into Birmingham hospitals putting up posters and handing out leaflets attacking the vaccine. "Swine flu is not the biggest danger. It’s the vaccine.” say the posters. Not surprisingly their campaign has incurred the wrath of health officials who point out that a) They're wrong and b) 89 of the 137 deaths from swine flu so far might have been avoided if the vaccine had been available earlier in the UK. How many more deaths might therefore be caused by inaccurate information persuading people not to take the vaccine? Healthy debate is one thing. Irresponsible scare-mongering is another.