Jeremy Laurance: Let down by the reality of swine flu

We have to explain that science deals in probabilities, not certainties

Share
Related Topics

Forgive me if this sounds callous, but I am finding it hard to conceal my disappointment about swine flu. For years I have been writing about the "next flu pandemic" and its potential to cause catastrophe, on the basis of what virologists told me.

I went to Hong Kong in 2003 to report on the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – better known as SARS – because I thought that might be it. I followed the spread of avian influenza from the Far East across Europe to Britain in 2006 with, yes, eager anticipation. And when swine flu broke out in Mexico last April and the first flu pandemic in 40 years was declared, I sounded the alarm as loudly as anyone.

I didn't expect it to end with a whimper instead of a bang. But that is how it is looking now – for this year at least. New infections have plateaued for the last two weeks at levels only just above the baseline for seasonal flu. The official reason given is the "half-term effect": children off school slow the spread of the virus. But swine flu may well now be on a downward trend. Flu outbreaks happen in waves of up to 16 weeks, and more usually 10 weeks. We are already in week 10 of the current wave.

Of course, it is still early days. Even if we are over the worst for this year, the virus may mutate and come back in a third wave (the first happened in the summer) later this winter or next. But suppose it does not. What then? How will Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, and the virologists that advise him explain the enormous resources – £1bn plus – that have been devoted to fighting what will have turned out to be a not very great threat?

Swine flu is very nasty in a few people – especially under-fives, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses. It has killed perfectly healthy young people. In this respect it is significantly different from seasonal flu which mainly kills the vulnerable elderly. Even so, the Government's worst-case scenario for this year – the worst case – is 1,000 deaths. When I wrote my first story warning of the threat of pandemic flu exactly 20 years ago, in the midst of the 1989-90 seasonal flu epidemic, 35,000 people died in Britain.

I have great sympathy for Sir Liam Donaldson. The one thing we know about flu is its unpredictability. Calling the odds on the extent and severity of a flu pandemic is an impossible task. Yet in speaking to virologists in recent days, I sense a certain defensiveness, a reluctance to accept that, potentially, we may have overdone it on flu.

That should not be surprising. If I feel disappointed – and, ghoulishly, I do – how much more disappointed must be those who have devoted their life's work to pandemic flu? They may feel relief at the lives spared, while grieving for the research grants lost, and for their missed moment in the sun.

If the retreat of swine flu is confirmed this week, I worry what impact it may have on public confidence in science. We were warned to prepare for a modern plague. If it does not arrive, how closely will we heed future warnings? There is surely, then, only one option. To explain that science deals not in certainties but probabilities, that when things do not turn out as we expect we will endeavour to discover why, and to admit – ministers, officials, researchers and those who, like me, report their research – that on this occasion we got it wrong.



Jeremy Laurance is Health Editor of 'The Independent'

j.laurance@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Recruitment Genius: Invoicing Clerk

£14500 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are contractors to...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Administrator / Marketing Assistant

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of packag...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Hillary Clinton’s private messages reveal the banality of email

Alice Jones
 

We celebrate the power of a few women, yet ignore the 9,000 who are locked away

Janet Street-Porter
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy