Saturday 9 May 2009
Deborah Orr: The lessons I've learned from a week as a swine flu parent
I haven't yet received my leaflet from the Government, telling me what contribution I can make to the containment of swine flu. Happily, I don't need it, because I'm fantastically well up on the H1N1 virus. That's partly because I researched and wrote about the matter for this newspaper 10 days ago. But it's also because I'm one of the small number of parents in this country who have been involved in controlling the spread of the illness.
One of my sons attends the London primary school that has closed because of the as yet modest outbreak in Britain. He has displayed no symptoms, and it is now eight days since he was in the building, so it's pretty much certain that he's never going to. Not that the building was likely to have been harbouring any infection anyway. Neither of the children who attend the school and developed mild swine flu last weekend – from a sibling at another closed school – was ill while they were on the premises.
Even so, my son and his schoolmates yesterday began a 10-day course of Tamiflu, as a further precaution, on the advice of the Health Protection Agency. At an individual level, I don't think there is any need for my son to take this powerful neuraminidase inhibitor, which comes with the usual list of unpleasant-sounding possible side effects. The chances of him having the virus are vanishingly small, if any, and even if he did develop swine flu, he's not a vulnerable person, and would more than likely recover with only a useful natural immunity to further, perhaps more virulent, outbreaks to show for it.
At the "herd' level, though, administering this potion is the right thing to do. Taking a vanishingly small risk with your own child's health is one thing. Taking a vanishingly small risk that your son may therefore, possibly, become part of a chain that somewhere leads to calamity is quite another. Essentially, my son and his schoolmates are taking Tamiflu so that others, maybe many others, won't have to. Widespread use of Tamiflu is not desirable, as it's a great way of creating a resistant virus.
But my son has siblings, too, at other schools that are not closed. They are not in quarantine, and are not receiving medication. It was for their sake that I hesitated before writing this piece, even though I am sure that they are of no danger to anyone, because they quite definitely have not been exposed to the virus, either via respiration or surface contact.
But the spread of swine flu wasn't my worry. It was the spread of fear. When my seven-year-old came home from school on Wednesday (I did keep him off for one day, just to be ultra-sure there was no risk of infection), he said: "Everyone thinks I've got swine flu!" He had shrugged the teasing off, unruffled.
Other children have been subjected to more than gentle teasing, though. When British schoolchildren were first diagnosed, they and their parents were happy to co-operate with the media. One Devon girl was even broadcast on the telly, being questioned about why she was crying. "Because I don't want to get it," she whimpered. Yet the poor child was infected only with the belief that swine flu was utterly new, totally unpredictable, completely uncontrollable, and horribly deadly.
The frank interviews and full disclosures are over now, because honest and open dissemination of valid anecdotal information has attracted cruel and nasty attention, via mobile phones and websites. The Government and other officials also have become notably more cagey about giving precise details of who has what and where. The chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, has even announced, with schoolchildren in mind: "This is not a plague."
That kind of message is long overdue. When my first piece on this subject was published last Wednesday, I was surprised to find that it was categorised by some as being part of a "chorus" of naysayers, including The Guardian's Simon Jenkins. Yet while I'm a great admirer of Jenkins generally, on this matter his arguments have been silly and fatuous beyond belief. He thinks, in a nutshell, that H1N1 is just like Sars and CJS, a conspiracy got up by science to scare us. I don't think that at all. I think the opposite: that the media and the Government haven't been respectful enough of science – or even logic – and its power to contain and reassure, especially in a developed country.
There has been, for example, a lot of speculation, even among scientists, about how H1N1 is a "wholly novel" virus, because it's a fresh and unpredictable combination against which we may have no immunity. Fair enough, that was one of the bleakest of very many possible scenarios. But there was not enough context. Every human baby, for example, is a new and unpredictable combination. It's possible that it might grow up to become Hitler or Stalin or Stepdad P, or just poorly or depressed or a bit weird. But it's best by far to assume that the new baby not going to grow up to be so very much more dangerous or miserable than most other people, and give it all the care and attention that you can muster in the meantime.
Likewise all of that banging on about 1918 is unhelpful, because in 1918 there was no World Health Organisation, no NHS, no Health Protection Agency, no Tamiflu and no ability quickly to produce new vaccine. The idea that we're "overdue" for a terrible pandemic also omits these changed factors.
Now, after a couple of weeks of wild speculation and sensational claims, some of those on the front line, among people who can contain the virus by applying good sense and civil responsibility – its potential or actual carriers and their families – are being treated like the enemy. Which is surely prima facie evidence that somewhere along the line, the tone of the public debate was misjudged.
Shock tactics backfire
Keira Knightley, has generously given of her time to take part in an advertisement made by the charity Women's Aid to highlight domestic abuse. However, the short film, which features an actress being beaten by a jealous boyfriend, has been deemed too brutal for television, and it won't be shown unless cuts are made.
This is by no means the first time that charities have run into criticism because they employ shock tactics. Usually those who support the aims of the charities support their use of graphic depictions of extreme behaviour in their publicity. And, obviously, I'm against domestic violence.
Yet it is worth thinking about what these campaigns are actually doing. They are designed to elicit donations, rather than change behaviour directly, and I can't help wondering if all of the million people who have viewed this film on YouTube did so because they were thinking about making a financial contribution.
Unreasonable jealousy is indeed a trigger for domestic violence. If a man is struggling with such obsessive thoughts, then he may be on a dangerous path. Can a readily available film of what may lie at the end of that path be a sure way of getting him off it? Or could it persuade him that he is justified in nurturing his dark thoughts? Might it have been better if Knightley's services had been harnessed in a more subtle way, one that alerted men to early signals of dangerous thought patterns, and offered a helpline they could call if they recognised such perilous symptoms?
Spice up your life at your peril
The Government has suddenly become worried about Spice, the "herbal high" you can buy legally on the internet.
However, because a lot of my friends are recovering addicts who love to talk about new drugs in the way that anorexics love watching their chums eating pudding, Spice is already old news to me. Smoking Spice, apparently, is a bit like smoking dope, except that the hit lasts much, much longer, as long as 24 hours. If you're reluctantly in rehab, it's your friend, because it doesn't show up in urine tests.
And, best of all, no one even knows if it's addictive or dangerous, so even the most careful adherents to addiction recovery can sit about wondering deliciously if maybe they could take up Spice without relapsing. Though they know in their hearts that they can't. One for regulation, surely, which educates and protects, instead of prohibition, which only creates new crime.
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