Jeremy Laurance: Deaths are down, flu is in retreat. Hurrah for the pandemic!

Medical Life

Could pandemic flu end up saving lives this winter? An odd idea, I know, but consider this. When swine flu arrived last summer it spread very rapidly, peaking at the end of July. There was a smaller peak in the autumn and now levels are so low that the Government last week closed the National Flu Pandemic Service. From the start we knew it was nastier in young children under five than in adults. Older people seemed to have some immunity. Of the 298 deaths in England since the start of the pandemic, only 50 (17 per cent) were in the over 65s.

Swine flu, then, has had the reverse effect of normal seasonal flu – it has targeted the young and spared the elderly. But the H1N1 pandemic virus has had another effect in common with all pandemic strains – it has driven out the existing seasonal flu viruses, including (non-pandemic) H1N1, H3 and B viruses, which characteristically target the elderly, causing widespread illness and death.

In a normal year there are between 4,000 and 8,000 excess deaths during the winter, mostly among the elderly, which can rise to two or three times that level in a bad flu year (there were 21,000 excess deaths in the winter of 1999-2000).

What will the excess deaths be this winter? It has been unusually cold, which is likely to increase the toll. But given the low rates of flu, especially seasonal flu which is more dangerous for the elderly, my betting is the excess deaths will be low – possibly exceptionally so. If that turns out to be the case, while mourning the 298 lives lost to swine flu in England (and 411 in the UK), we can celebrate the hundreds – and possibly thousands – of older people's lives which have been spared thanks to the retreat of seasonal flu.

Pandemic flu as a life saver? Who would have thought it?

***

On Sunday night I went to a unique theatrical event – the dramatisation of one of my stories, "Scientists read the minds of the living dead", published in The Independent on 4 February, about the 29-year-old man presumed to be in a vegetative state after a road accident, until a brain scanner showed his mind was active and he could answer questions.

It was part of a series by the dynamic young theatrical group Nabokov who choose a news story and challenge four teams of directors, writers and actors to develop a drama around it in one week.

The Southwark Playhouse was packed for the four world premieres and it was a wild, funny, moving and thought-provoking evening. Comedy writer and performer Jessica Hynes of Spaced fame devised a raucously rude meditation on lost sexuality, which developed into a subtle exploration of our modern obsession with ego.

Whose life is it, she asked, the patient's or the doctors'? How far are we projecting our own longings onto people whose preoccupations may be entirely different? It is hard enough to imagine what it can be like to be near death (I find almost all discussion of assisted suicide deeply suspect for this reason) let alone beyond it. Gripping stuff.

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