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How will the world react to a pandemic?

Fergus Walsh | 14:30 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

So it's now just a question of timing. Within a day or so the World Health Organisation will officially declare a pandemic of H1N1 swine flu.

The move to pandemic Phase 6 will be official confirmation that the H1N1 virus is here to stay and that it will continue to spread globally. It must be hoped that the world does not over-react.

Passengers screen at Budapest Airport

It will probably be months before most of us come into contact with the virus, and when we do, the vast majority will experience mild flu symptoms. It is not an indication that the virus is becoming more virulent. If those messages can be effectively communicated to the public, it could prevent a lot of unnecessary alarm.

A key decision concerns vaccines. Several manufacturers now have an H1N1 seed virus strain, and will be doing safety and efficacy testing in the coming months. We don't know how well the virus will grow or how many doses people will need to be protected.

Given the moderate nature of H1N1 it would be inconceivable for the WHO to ask manufacturers to switch completely from production of seasonal flu to a pandemic vaccine.

More likely is that companies will try to do a bit of both. Several countries, including the UK, have contracts to provide enough doses to immunise their entire populations. But despite upscaling in production in recent years, there won't be enough jabs to go round globally.

The first bulk doses might be ready in the late autumn and would be earmarked for frontline emergency staff and those with chronic respiratory problems. It's possible that by the time an H1N1 vaccine is ready, the virus will already be spreading rapidly in the northern hemisphere. We will learn a lot from what happens in Australia and other southern hemisphere countries in the months ahead.

So are we over-reacting to swine flu? I don't believe so. Even a pandemic of mostly mild illness will still cause huge disruption to business and society during its peak because it mostly affects those of working and school age.

Although the vast majority of those infected get mild symptoms, a few get seriously ill. The WHO estimates that about half the 140 deaths so far have been in young people who were previously healthy.

We must also watch out for genetic reassortment - or drift - in the DNA of the virus which might make it more virulent in future. There's no sign of that yet but it's another reason why we should all take the pandemic seriously, without the need for panic.


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  • 1. At 2:40pm on 10 Jun 2009, oliverpbessell wrote:

    Extremley well put Fergus, summed it all up perfectly.

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  • 2. At 2:46pm on 10 Jun 2009, Nitebot wrote:

    Excellent post Fergus! :-)

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  • 3. At 3:51pm on 10 Jun 2009, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    Thank you Fergus for keeping us in the picture. Most people will cope with the label 'level 6'. We have had plenty of time to get used to the idea of pandemic. Those who will panic will not have understood, because they haven't bothered to find out the real facts.

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  • 4. At 4:47pm on 10 Jun 2009, jpwrighty wrote:

    As Oliver, Nitebot and Sensible have mentioned excellent post Fergus. I like your post especially Sensibleoldgrannie because it had me thinking about those 'who will panic because they lack the understanding of what Level 6 means'... I fear that we will see 'Level 6' Splashed across websites and Red Top Papers and you will get a 'panic reaction' in 'Some through to Many People'.

    You may remember the Film 'War Games' with Matthew Broderick, it seemed to be on every Bank Holiday as I grew up... well if you did you will also remember how they used the term 'Defcon 1 - 5' to indicate the potential of Nuclear Anhiliation... equally in society we hear about Terror levels for instance... these very 'Basic Levels' are devised for calm and learned profesionals to use in cases such as this Flu Pandemic, but to the general public you get to the top of the Level... and 'people' will react anything but calmly, because they just 'hear' we are at Level 6!!! - Defcon 5!!!

    Ulitmately when organisations put together these 'levels' I think they 'forget' the potential of misunderstanding by some members of the public (and the way the media can use the simplistic level system to sell papers). I think that in the media led world we have we will find that the use of level 1-6 as a basic means of indication, will not help but hinder.

    Maybe I'm overreacting... but then I thought that people would see sense in regard MMR jabs... and look where we are now.

    If we are not careful, there will be people 'worrying their heads off' about catching 'H1N1 Flu' and we will end up with more kids and workers out of work Healthy, but not going in too work/school because 'they may catch it...

    My tuppence worth of thoughts!


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  • 5. At 7:02pm on 10 Jun 2009, Insidetheworldofflu wrote:

    Excellent piece on the news brought me here...thanks Fergus
    This whole thing gets dafter by the day. The country is supposed to be geared up to take care of itself during such a crisis. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 makes all of what have been deemed as Category 1 Responders, (Blue Lights, Councils, hospitals etc) responsible to deliver us, as best they can, business as usual during the pandemic.
    To me, working on the inside of this industry, I must say it seems to be one big talking shop with no action. At a huge cost to the Govt coffers. I have attended meetings to watch 20 people in a room talking, talking and talking and not empowered or interested in doing anything. Some don't even take a pen or a pad or any actions away. What are these £30-40k Council employees doing? Thats up to 5 times a month in many places! Crazy
    The Emergency Planning Society talks about it, the Cabinet Office talks about it, The Society of Local Authority Chief Execs talks about it, and nobody does anything.
    Question. If an old lady falls over in her flat and pulls on her emergency cord, what happens? It transmits a call to (generally) a local authority call centre. The agent then distributes the call to a local keyholder to check the old lady out.
    If the flu pandemic keeps kids at home, because the schools are shut, as a huge number of the call centre agents are women, mums of those kids, where will the call go to be answered to help the old lady up...?
    Thats what the Act is make provision.
    The simple fix is help everybody work from home, so they can look after little Jim, home from school, or their husband who might be sick, and still look after the old ladies' call.
    And the systems I have seen to do this are cheap as chips!
    But then, those attending those meetings need not meet anymore and that means they have been sussed!
    Written from the heart, from home, where the pandemic shouldn't affect me!
    JP, thats probably thruppence in there.!

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  • 6. At 9:48pm on 10 Jun 2009, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    I am really encouraged to see the humanitarian elements of discussion developing out of this blog. Everyone is starting to think more deeply. If we are as suggested, going to have to just get on with it, we will need to work as a team, to think of strategies to support each other voluntarily. The voluntary sector are going to be the real hero's when the paid workers are off looking after their own families. How about neighborhood watch as a starting point for reaching local communities? Years ago I used to do a stint at being a neighborhood watch person. There is potential to develop the neighborhood watch role during a pandemic, to become a team leader of a group of people who are willing to share community responsibilities. There is stacks of info on the American websites about how to do this.

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  • 7. At 08:57am on 11 Jun 2009, Fergus Walsh (BBC) wrote:

    Many thanks for all your comments. It's very encouraging to get feedback, especially when it's so positive! I will do my best to keep reporting on all aspects of the pandemic - the official declaration is likely later today.

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  • 8. At 3:16pm on 11 Jun 2009, Robert Carnegie wrote:

    Efforts to contain the virus have officially proved futile, millions of people die - in a world of many billions of course - wasn't this ever preventable?

    I looked at author Lindsey Davies's web page a couple of weeks ago. She was saying how pleased she was that travel restrictions weren't about to be imposed that would stop her U.S. book tour. I thought: are you still so sure that you want to go? She went. She's back. She's well... at last word.

    Didn't the Roman Empire, her triumphant subject, fall to plague...

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  • 9. At 10:29pm on 12 Jun 2009, JamesJester wrote:

    Not that I am cynical in anyway but how long is it going to take people to realise that the WHO are only in it for the money. I wonder how many members of the WHO are major shareholders or have strategic roles within the large global pharmaceutical companies............what a great way to stimulate sales!!

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