pandemonium over a pandemic

yesterday, the delegation had a briefing on the AH1N1 influenza pandemic that has infected nearly 50,000 people in the world today, 1% of such cases reported by the philippines. i learned a few things from the presentation: that flu pandemics do not occur regularly: on average, they take place between 30 to 40 years apart. the last one was exactly 41 years ago, and the longest interval was 42 years. influenza is italian for influence. that the current strain has high morbidity, but low mortality. morbidity, not to be confused with the ideas we tend to associate with the word morbid, refers to the capacity of the disease to spread, whilst mortality is the rate at which deaths are recorded. the avian flu (H5N1) had high mortality (more than half of those infected died), but extremely low morbidity, as there was no sustained human to human infection, only direct contamination from birds. that past pandemics have mostly been wrongly attributed to places (spanish flu, hong kong flu, asian flu, mexican flu, etc.); the joke in the WHO is that the reason for this is that we have to blame someone. the seasonal flu kills on average half a million people in the world annually. there is a vaccine for this though, and while a shot is not a guarantee against the swine flu (a misnomer), getting vaccinated is important as it rules out AH1N1. north korea and canada have two of the highest ratios of vaccination (1 in 3 people have gotten it), while in the philippines, as most southeast asian countries, only less than 1 in 1,000 have been vaccinated (although this will change with the present rush to avoid the disease).

i was also jolted to accept some realities: that i have 1 in 4 chances of getting it. that it is virtually useless to avoid traveling abroad as all countries in the world are bound to have cases, even azerbaijan. that i should undertake certain precautions, but not to panic. it has to be emphasized that the best way to combat the flu is to maintain good hygiene and to keep one's self healthy. the precautions can be a little preposterous. for example, we were told that in the bangkok delegation, they have implemented some drastic measures: gatherings at the pantry has been discouraged. in meetings, people sit one seat apart. people move around the circular office in single direction (clockwise). flu kits have been distributed, which include a mask, alcogel, and tamiflu. if possible, social interactions should be reduced. handshakes avoided, beso-beso refused, and thick crowds dispersed. it's called social distancing. this really presents a problem for filipinos, because our culture, as well as our cities, are hotspots for the spread of the virus. the precautions almost suggest that people should dissociate themselves from everyone, live hermit-like lives, and be generally unfriendly. also, wearing masks is NOT at all a guarantee that your chances of contracting the disease is significantly reduced. if at all, those exhibiting flu-like symptoms should be the ones wearing the masks.

anyway, my view is that if you get it you get it. when i arrived from taipei last week people suggested that i go on self-quarantine. it may have been the sober thing to do, but to be honest, at the time, the philippines had already more than 5 times the number of cases than all of taiwan. so if i were to get it, it would not have been there but here. the DOH has already declared a low-level community outbreak: transmission has occurred among people who have not been abroad, although admittedly, our first cases were imported from the US. a part of me is inclined to suggest that the pandemonium over AH1N1 has been grossly exaggerated. now this may be a good thing: people are better aware, more careful. but it's also a bad thing: spending for flu shots, tamiflu, swabs, and lab tests has spiked, it has benefited no one but pharmaceutical companies. i'm pretty sure employees of sanofi and roche are getting fat bonuses this year. and whichever develops the vaccine first (which should be available in 2 to 4 months) is going to get even richer. all i can say is that in the end, we create our own problems and make way for situations that tend to require solutions.