It came from outer space: to me

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The Independent Online
SATURDAY NIGHT It started at 3 am when I was woken up by a strange rushing noise. What the hell was it? I got up on one elbow and listened. It took a few seconds to locate the source, because I was listening in the wrong place. It was the sound of blood,surging through my ears. The noise was inside my head.

This is strange, I thought. A rush of blood to the head is nothing unusual when I'm working, but to be shaken from sleep by the same seemed a little peculiar, to say the least. I decided to pursue the time-honoured medicinal route, and get myself a glassof water. As I stood up, my head started to swim. My heart was thumping in my chest. My legs were unsteady.

Since I had taken nothing stronger than Darjeeling for at least two weeks beforehand, I knew it couldn't be a pharmaceutical problem. In the living room, I realised I was going to lose consciousness unless I sat down quickly, so I lurched to the sofa. Twenty minutes later I felt even worse. Dizzy, sick, weak, frightened. But why?

I am deeply embarrassed to admit this, but I panicked. Look, I have good excuses. I live alone, don't have a steady girlfriend, go abroad frequently, and sometimes disappear for days on end. If I collapsed, nobody would come looking for me until the stench started seeping through the floorboards. I dialled 999 and got in the ambulance, feeling pathetic.

A battery of tests at University College Hospital confirmed my worst fears. There was nothing wrong with me, except for a slight temperature. As I walked home through the drizzle, I noticed a slight soreness in my throat, but it was gone by the time I got into bed again. Oh, shame.

And there the matter might have rested, except that for the next four days I had a peculiar feeling of disembodiment. I would lift my arm, and feel the sensation of movement a fraction of a second later. It was as if something had come loose inside me. My head ached constantly. I felt frail and disoriented, rather than ill, A friend said it might be flu. "No," I huffed. "This is nothing like ..." And then I remembered what Guy had told me last winter, about getting this weird kind of flu with overwhelmingemotional and psychic symptoms. lt started with a general feeling of panic, and led to a sense of "floating in some kind of netherworld". He called it Space Flu. At the time, I thought he'd probably done too many Class A's. Now I understood what he meant.

Earlier this week I met my musician friend Geff, and started telling him my story. He interrupted after five seconds. "Space Flu," he said. "Sleep disruption, palpitations, feeling of altered blood pressure, followed by headaches and a sense of being spaced out. It totally disables you, but in a new way. There's no snottiness, no cough, no muscular aches or pains." Geff had never even met Guy.

Christine Murphy, of the Public Health Laboratory Service, said she had never heard of Space Flu, but noted that the astronomer Professor Fred Hoyle had thought that the flu virus originally came from outer space. "The flu virus is subject to antigenic drift, and antigenic shift. All the time the flu virus is changing its structure, or mutating. That is the `drift'. But the potential for pandemics arises when the virus changes radically. That is antigenic `shift'. That's when you have real problems."

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at the National Institute for Medical Research, had no knowledge of a flu virus that conformed to my lurid descriptions. "But unlike any other virus, flu is capricious, it changes rapidly and unpredictably." Strangely,this winter has been unusually quiet in terms of flu virus, said Professor Oxford. "But there are some interesting other viruses moving around, like respiratory syncytial virus, which is flu-like, and also influenza B."

But no Space Flu. So far, it seems confined to me and a few like-minded individuals. Are we all hopeless hypochondriacs, whose fever is limited chiefly to the imagination? Or is there a new strain of virus developing, whose symptoms are more psychic thanphysical? Could there be some link with ME, the so-called Yuppie Flu that first came to prominence in the Eighties, and whose very existence was hotly disputed? Answers on a postcard, please.