It seems that the 3 students from Northcote college who were on flight NZ5 have just caught colds and don’t have Swine flu. This is great, but it does illustrate one of the major difficulties New Zealand’s health services will face if this disease turns pandemic. We are about to go into our busiest time of year with health services normally being pushed to the max by respiratory illnesses. Add all the possible swine flu sufferers and you have a recipe for a completely overwhelmed health service. Add everyone with cold and flu symptoms (understandably) panicking and trying to access the heath system to find out whether they have the disease or not and we have all the makings of utter chaos. Note that this chaos is likely even if it turns out that Swine Flu is not as dangerous as the Mexican situation indicates.
Currently the MoH guidelines suggest that every respiratory illness with a history of travel to Mexico and Los Angeles and their contacts should be considered potential Swine flu. This will have to change if the disease is not contained (a likely scenario, unfortunately). People will have to be told to stay at home and only access the hospitals if they are short of breath or spiking a high fever. Of course, this will mean that everyone with mild cold symptoms will stay at home. Expect the recession to last a bit longer than originally anticipated. Nice timing, Eh?
And talking about timing, WHO have increased the alert on this from level three to level four. Way to go guys! This should have been at level four days ago, when the first case outside of Mexico was confirmed. The difference is that a level 3 alert means that countries should prepare for a pandemic, monitoring the situation. Level four means that active containment measures should be taken. Except that now it is almost certainly too late.
Not that WHO pandemic phases ever made a lot of sense to me. Vaccine manufacturers only get shifted into making a vaccine for the pandemic strain at level five (when it is actively spreading in at least two countries). Yet the only way vaccines can be effective is to give them well ahead of the virus wave. It would seem prudent to start making the damn thing at this stage, but then, someone might get left with a huge pile of useless vaccine if the pandemic does not eventuate. [Update: apparently the CDC have already started the process of manufacturing the vaccine]
For those of you who recall the disastrous vaccine campaign for the last outbreak of swine flu in 1975, which resulted in 100s of cases of Guillian Barre syndrome, rest easy. More than 30 years of technological advancement means that the vaccines of today are far purer than their 1975 counterparts. A pandemic vaccine will certainly do more good than harm, by a very wide margin.
And for those of you who like a human face to all the drama, here is a first hand report from a survivor of the swine flu. Mind you, she says that the most prominent feature was she couldn’t get out of bed which sound pretty much like normal in the MacDoctor household.
Youngest MacDoctor daughter asked what the symptoms of Swine flu were. As a dutiful father should, I informed her that it turned people into rabid, brain-sucking zombies. Youngest MacDoctor daughter then wondered how she would be able to tell if her father was infected. Macdoctor told her not to worry about it as she was only a brief snack and not worth bothering with… :-)