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Much ado about flu: some theories

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Robin Lustig | 10:26 UK time, Friday, 24 July 2009

I imagine you remember BSE and mad cow disease. Weren't we told that anyone who had ever eaten beef was supposedly at risk of life-threatening brain damage? And you probably remember the bird flu scare. Maybe you even remember necrotising fasciitis, the "flesh-eating bug", which had us all terrified a few years back.

Why are we so prone to health hysteria? And why do we apparently find it so difficult to tell the difference between a scare story and a genuine health emergency?

I have some theories. First, we live in a complex, confusing, technologically-challenging world. We are never quite sure how fresh is the food that we eat or how pure is the air that we breathe. We lie awake at night and worry: do I know enough, understand enough, to make the right decisions for myself and my family?

We scour the newspapers and sit glued in front of the TV or radio, hoping to learn something that will help us understand. Should I be eating more eggs, or fewer? Should my children drink more fruit juice, or less?

But the answers are usually as confused as the questions. We no longer automatically believe what we're told, anyway - so even if a Government minister, or a doctor, tells us "This is how it is", we are sceptical, or dismissive.

Which brings us, as you knew it would, to swine flu. Or flu, as I prefer to call it. I imagine that, like most people, you've had flu at some point in the past, and survived. (No jokes, please, about men who get flu: everyone knows that men suffer much more when they're ill than women do ... it's just the way we're made.)

Swine flu is this year's flu. The only difference, so far as I can make out, is that the virus is slightly different from the ordinary, common-or-garden, seasonal flu, which means that the vaccine which is usually given to vulnerable people isn't effective. This new flu may be a bit more likely to spread, but it seems to be no more serious as an illness (if anything, it might be a bit less serious - at least, for most people).

All right, so why all the fuss? Here's my theory. First, officials never want to be accused of being unprepared, or of having failed to warn the public of a genuine danger. So they are naturally tempted to err on the side of pessimism.

Second, it is part of their job to prepare for the worst. They have spent ages drawing up detailed contingency plans. So when we reporters ask them: "What's the worst case scenario?", they have a nice, scary answer ready and waiting.

And why do we reporters always seem to look for the worst case scenario? Well, imagine tonight's programme. I read the top headline: "There seems to be a new flu virus, but no one seems too worried." Alternatively, I read: "There seems to be a new flu virus. Government scientists say up to a million people could be affected." Which one would keep you listening? (Honest answers only, please.)

We don't do hysteria on The World Tonight. We try to separate fact from speculation, and we try to examine, dispassionately, what officials are saying and how the experts react. As for me, I travel to work every day by Tube, and as I hang on to the rail, I remind myself that thousands more hands have been there before mine. Some of them, doubtlessly, have been coughed or sneezed on. So I wash my hands as soon as I get to the office.

If you want more information or guidance, the National Flu Service website is up and running, or you can try phoning 0800 1 513 513.

I'm taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and will try very hard not to think about swine, or flu.


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