Telling Porkies


As the media frenzy ignites again over Swine Flu, Daniel Keenan questions whether the concerns are justified

Media hype has hit fever point about the H1N1 virus, but is swine flu really as dangerous as we’re being told?

swinefluAccording to the National Health Service in the UK, the symptoms of swine flu are fever, unusual tiredness, headache, runny nose, sore throat, shortness of breath or cough, loss of appetite, aching muscles, diarrhoea or vomiting. Though these symptoms can be severe, they are no different to the symptoms for the seasonal flu, which are (according to the same source): fever, extreme tiredness, headaches, runny nose (more common in children), dry cough, chills, muscle aches, and stomach symptoms, such as nausea, and vomiting. Diarrhoea may also occur.

So when the two strains have basically the same symptoms, why is swine flu being called a pandemic, and seasonal flu being forgotten about? The main reason for this, we’re told, is because swine flu is more easily transmitted from person to person.

However, every year there are between 340 million to 1 billion cases of seasonal flu worldwide. There is no official figure for the number of confirmed swine flu cases, but it is estimated that it falls well short of the number of seasonal flu cases. Figures don’t lie, and these figures show us that the seasonal flu is actually far more infectious than swine flu.

After suffering a disease or getting a vaccination, our bodies form memory cells, which remember specific antigens (found on the surface of a pathogen/disease carrying micro-organism) and then create antibodies to attack and destroy the pathogen. This is why it’s rare to suffer the same disease twice. Since swine flu is a new strain of pathogen, our body has no memory cells to deal with the strain, which is why most of us are completely susceptible to the disease. Some people aged 60 or over have immunity to the H1N1 virus because of an outbreak of a disease quite similar to it in the early 1950s.

With no immunity to it and its easy spread from person to person, surely swine flu is in fact dangerous. Well, yes – all diseases are dangerous, but the point is that swine flu is no different to any of these diseases. It is, in essence, a mutated mixture of bird flu and human flu. Every day, pathogens mutate, creating new strains of disease. Though most of these will not infect anyone, some do, such as MRSA, or the seasonal flu.

The reason that we can suffer, what we call, the flu, more than once in a life time, is because the virus mutates, creating a different strain of flu. The mutation changes the antigen, which means our memory cells don’t recognise the antigen, and can’t create specific antibodies against it, so if the pathogen does invade our body, we suffer the disease.

The similarities between the common flu and swine flu are uncanny, so why do people fear getting the swine flu, and not the seasonal flu, so much? The answer is because of the fear mongering by the media (both local and international), forcing people to believe that getting swine flu might indeed be the end of the world. We constantly read and listen to reports of people dying of swine flu, leading us to draw the conclusion that contracting it is a death sentence.

Thus far, approximately 6,170 people have died of confirmed swine flu. The figure is not a pleasant one, but comparing it to other annual deaths of easily contractible diseases, it’s miniscule. MRSA, the antibiotic resistant bacteria, is responsible for 18,000 deaths a year in hospitals. The annual death toll for the seasonal flu worldwide is, shockingly, between 250,000-500,000.

Admittedly, most of these deaths are in poorer regions, like Africa or South America, where little or no healthcare is available. It is, in fact, the same case with swine flu: one third of all swine flu related deaths are in South America (Africa has not yet been hit), and most of the rest of the deaths have been as a result of a combination of swine flu and another underlying diseases. Very few healthy people actually die of swine flu alone.

As for the swine flu death toll in Ireland – ten at the time of going to print – it’s worth noting that most of the people who died weren’t in the best of health. The first person in Ireland to die was a cystic fibrosis sufferer; the majority of the rest also had underlying medical conditions.

With similar symptoms, a lower death toll, and – in all likelihood – the assurance that you won’t get it again, swine flu, in fact, seems to be the lesser of two evils when compared to the regular flu.