Swine flu panic

Published : Dec 04, 2009 00:00 IST

In a school near Rajawadi Hospital in Mumbai, pupils attend classes wearing masks after the swine flu outbreak. Never once did the WHO say that swine flu was one among hundreds of diseases, some much more dangerous, that had spread across the world.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

In a school near Rajawadi Hospital in Mumbai, pupils attend classes wearing masks after the swine flu outbreak. Never once did the WHO say that swine flu was one among hundreds of diseases, some much more dangerous, that had spread across the world.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

RECENTLY my granddaughter came down with swine flu from which she recovered rapidly enough. In fact, her symptoms were no different from those for ordinary flu fever, bodyache, lassitude and a loss of appetite. Although her family doctor, an eminent paediatrician, advised against it, the doctor at the designated hospital that she went to for the blood report prescribed osteltamivir (Tamiflu). The child reacted badly to the medicine. The family doctor then firmly to ld my daughter to stop Tamiflu at once and to keep her on paracetamol alone and let her rest. It worked; the child got over it in a few days and was back at school.

The exasperated paediatrician told my daughter that parents whose children tested positive for swine flu demanded that Tamiflu be prescribed, when the illness which is a form of influenza can be managed in most cases with paracetamol, plenty of fluids and rest, that is, the same treatment as for the common flu that visits the country at this time of the year. The paediatrician blamed the media for having blown the issue out of all proportion; she explained that it was only if the infection affected the respiratory system, or if the patients lungs were weak for some reason, one could administer Tamiflu.

Having seen my grandchild go through this, I feel there is much wisdom in what the good lady says about the role of the media in making swine flu something like the Black Death in medieval Europe and the more recent outbreak of plague in India. More people die every day from common flu all over the country than the total number that have died from swine flu. The number of cases of swine flu are far fewer than the number of common flu cases occurring every day. All this is glossed over; it just is not considered news. But swine flu is.

One finds the medias obsession with this illness quite inexplicable. Is it because it is very infectious, which it is? So is chicken pox; so, for that matter, is the common cold; so is the common or garden variety of flu from which millions, literally millions, suffer every year when the season changes. It is dismissed by most people as the viral or some such mild, acceptable name. But mention swine flu, and you have masks being whipped out, people scrambling to stay well away, and frantically washing their hands repeatedly.

These precautions are laudable and need to be followed, but surely they need to be followed for all kinds of flu. However, the other kind of flu is not newsworthy for the media. As I said, this obsession is inexplicable until one realises one important fact: swine flu started in the West. Or, to put it more accurately, it got the attention of the Western media, which rapidly made it out to be an infection to be feared, creating visions of hundreds of dead people being carted away as in medieval times when the plague descended.

The sad part is that this obsession was aided, perhaps unwittingly, by officials in the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is rapidly becoming a pandemic, they intoned; it has reached level 5, they said on camera, their faces careworn and grave; then, it has become a pandemic, they announced funereally. Never for once did they say that it was one among hundreds of diseases, some much more dangerous than this one, that had spread across the world. Will they tell us how many have died of malaria and how many from swine flu? Have they issued any statement saying that this should be seen as what it is, instead of adding to the panic of the kind we saw in Pune? And what, incidentally, of the inexorable spread of the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)? No vaccine has been developed for the HIV yet, whereas swine flu already has a vaccine.

In India, the Ministry of Health has not been far behind in the race to create a sense of panic. The free sale of Tamiflu was banned; only a few government hospitals were authorised to diagnose and treat swine flu; private clinics and hospitals were initially banned from doing so, and then a few were allowed to test for the infection and treat it after doctors of those hospitals and clinics were trained by government hospital staff and cleared. This is nothing short of comic. Anyone who has seen the charnel houses that pass for government hospitals and how a good number of the doctors in them treat patients will see why. The horror stories of the state of cleanliness of these hospitals are legion; stray dogs roam around wards and hospital waste lies piled up outside the buildings. The general stand taken is that government has been told; our equipment is not functioning; we have asked for new equipment; and so on. And these people train doctors and pathologists practising in private clinics that have won the trust of thousands over the years for their strict standards of cleanliness and the accuracy of their reports and of their treatment.

It is, finally, all of these people from the WHO downwards who have to take the responsibility for the induced hysteria and panic. Not the media. The media has, as usual, been used to getting some publicity and attention that everyone craves. (If proof of this were needed, one has only to see how successful the reality shows on different television channels are.)

Surely, it is time one was a little more mature about this. If one develops swine flu certainly one needs to treat it, as the lady paediatrician said, keeping the patient comfortable, using paracetamol to keep the fever and physical distress down, and if any symptoms of it affecting the respiratory tract appear then ask the doctor what to do whether to start with osteltamivir or shift the patient to hospital. But this is the kind of concern one would take if a patient got chicken pox, or measles, or the ordinary flu, leave alone more life-threatening diseases. Concern for publicity must not be an issue with those charged with treating and caring for all those who are ill, just as the media must not look to the Western media and loyally follow whatever they consider to be of concern to them.

Is any western print or electronic medium bothered about the number of cases of Japanese encephalitis that have occurred in some districts of Uttar Pradesh?

More people have died because of that disease, and there is no medicine corresponding to osteltamivir that is specific to that disease. Which pharmaceutical company has troubled to work on finding out a suitable medicine to treat that illness? None in this country, as far as one knows. Neither those that are branches of foreign multinational pharmaceutical companies nor any of the established Indian companies. Simply because there is no money in it.

One need not enter into a debate on what these companies should or should not do. All that one can ask for is that the present obsession with swine flu end, that it be seen as one of the infections that may affect people who are already exposed to so many others.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment