Tuesday 4 August 2009

Swine flu - From the horse's mouth

Dispelling the myths about H1N1

Swine flu has been all over the news for the last few months, especially in the UK; You could hardly miss it. But as with many things which are analyzed and deconstructed ad nauseum in the media over several months, the reality is somewhat different from the hype.

Having experienced swine flu first hand, and recovered, I feel compelled to set the record straight:

1) Swine flu is just another form of flu

New flu viruses appear every year, and despite its sinister sounding name, swine flu is just another variant. Most variants don’t get to have their own name outside of scientific circles - this one did for two reasons: Firstly, it originated in pigs not in humans; Secondly, it is extremely virulent. That does *not* mean that it is extremely serious - just that it is easily spread from human to human, more so than is normal for flu.

What seems to have happened is that a great deal of stigma has been attached to the name. “It’s not just flu, it’s SWINE flu, it must be AWFUL!”. The reality is that it’s actually quite a lot milder than many other forms of flu. Don’t get sucked into the hype.

2) The symptoms are actually quite mild

For me, the worst it got was one night when I broke out in a fever and was very restless, having multiple nightmares and being unable to sleep. My muscles were aching and I was physically exhausted. I was by no means in a lot of pain though. The remaining five or so days of illness (one day before that night and four days after) were much more like a bad cold - sore throat, sneezing, coughing, headaches and tiredness. At first I thought my tiredness was jet-lag from my flight to the UK, but it lasted too long. I was able to function normally and could quite easily have gone to work if I hadn’t been on holiday. I can’t stress enough how over-hyped swine flu is in terms of what it will be like. I have had far far worse infections - I remember one in particular a couple of years ago when my wife and I were bed bound for a week thanks to a particularly vicious flu. The only deaths that have happened from swine flu have happened to people who already had some other condition that made them more vulnerable - such as an existing illness or immune deficiency.

You may get even fewer symptoms to show than I did; my wife got a bit of a cold and a sniffle for a few days after me, it’s quite possible this is an even milder form of the same infection, that doesn’t seem to be developing into anything more than a light cold.

3) You can easily recover without medication

There has been much talk of anti-virals. But these are not needed in the vast majority of cases. In fact, most health services including NHS Direct in the UK and 811 Info-Santé in Canada, are advising that anyone with flu like symptoms should stay at home and rest, and recover by letting it run its course. Going to the doctors or pharmacy is not advisable because you risk passing the infection to some of the most vulnerable members of society. The medical advice I received said that it is no longer contagious after seven days. This seems about right, as I felt completely normal 8 days after the onset of the flu-like symptoms.

4) Infection can be avoided by taking simple precautions

Many people chose to avoid meeting up with me when they learned I had swine flu; I absolutely don’t have a problem with this because it’s true to say that the risk will be absolute zero if you stay away, but this can never be the case if you do meet up with someone who is ill.

Swine flu, like most viruses, can only be contracted by direct physical contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected. For example, if the infected person sneezes and does not cover their mouth, and some vapours contact your skin or lips. Or if they sneeze and then touch hard surfaces, the virus can survive on that surface for a day or more, and someone else could touch that surface and contract an infection.

So because the means of infection are limited, then provided the infected person catches their whole sneezes into clean tissues, which they throw away quickly, and then sanitize their hands, there is little to no risk of infection. You do not need to wear face masks around swine flu sufferers or avoid them like the plague - just take extra precautions before sharing utensils, phones, pens etc.

I suppose the interesting twist is that you are relying on the infected person to take precautions much more than you are in control of taking precautions yourself - this is why face masks are not recommended or effective.

5) You may never get to find out if your flu is swine flu

One of the interesting side effects of the advice to avoid going to doctors or pharmacies except in extreme cases is that you cannot get an official diagnosis. Instead you have to diagnose yourself (in my case by listening to the very informative recorded information provided by NHS Direct on 0845 46 47). Having listened to a lengthy description of all the symptoms and nodding my head to each, I determined that it was very likely I did have swine flu. But I may never know for sure.

6) Swine flu is not something to panic about

So, in summary, swine flu is not something you should be overly concerned about, any more than you would about a spate of colds going around or a wave of illnesses at work. You can take some sensible precautions to avoid infection, and in most cases you will be fine. If you are unlucky enough to contract swine flu, it’s really not a big deal. You’ll take a few days off work, you’ll feel bad for a while, but you’ll get better.

And most of all, like me, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

And maybe every cloud has a silver lining too, maybe it's good to have been infected now and build an immunity when the virus is weak. As my good friend Ozzy joked: "When swine flu merges with avian flu creating a mega virus that wipes out 95% of the world's population, you'll be fine and ready to create the new world - you'll be able to choose any manor you like and be the king of tinned food supplies!" (à la "Survivors")

A few related links