Saturday, May 16, 2009

Manic Panic

When I said "I saw panic in pandemic", it was taken as humorous.

Yes, I laughed along too but the other part of my brain was thinking of something else. I had too because both 'pandemic' and 'panic' were not funny to me.

Of course, I was thinking about the Influenza A (H1N1) flu which was earlier known as Swine Flu.

The H1N1 flu panic is not an unexpected phenomenon. There have been many similar outbreaks in the past and people reacted in just the same way. The diseases/causes may differ but the panic was the same. All those lessons were hard but our short memory often reinstate the mistakes that brought us the very suffering.

Let's recap some of the past panics...


If you are from Singapore, how could you not know the SARS episode in 2003?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus hopped from animal to human in Southern China, killing the first victim in Nov 2002. It then spread unchecked, thanks to the cover-ups. After it was brought into Hong Kong by a mainland Chinese businessman, the disease started to go international. Over 8,000 people were infected and nearly 800 was killed, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

By July 2003, there were no more human cases reported and the virus was considered contained. However, the experts warned that it could come back.

Mad Cow Disease

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease which causes degeneration of brains in infected cows and hence it's nickname, mad cow disease.

It is not contagious through person-to-person contact. However, a person can become sick by eating brain or spinal tissue from an infected cow or contaminated cuts, if proper safety measures are not observed.

The disease gradually destroys nervous tissue in the brain, resulting in dementia, memory loss, seizures and death. Unfortunately, it is incurable and always fatal.

The largest outbreak occurred in Britain beginning in 1984, killing more than 150 people. By now, about 189,000 cows have been infected and more than 200 people have contracted the human version of this disease. More than 95% of these cows and more than 75% of these people are from UK.

The main reason for the spread of this disease is the way the cows are fed. Farmers have been advised to avoid feeding ground remains of other cattle. I wonder how much have changed since the first outbreak.

Lead Toys

Panics are not always caused by flu virus

In 2007, toy maker Mattel recalled more than nine million toys after they were found to contain lead paint, which can cause impaired brain development in children. This led to similar reactions from other toy companies, each discovering similar tainting in their toys.

Most toys today are made in China. When this is coupled with lax safety standards in Chinese manufacturing plants, the world awaits a constant flow of defective and health-threatening products into their markets.

Mattel settled the matter out of court and US imposed stricter rules on imports. Sounds goods except I think that nothing much has changed in most Chinese factories.

The Melamine Scare

In 2007, a massive pet food recall was activated by many pet food manufacturers, after incidents of serious illness and death of pets were reported. The culprit was found to be wheat gluten used to make pet food, imported from a single source - China.

That could have been a warning for the Chinese authorities to step up checks on manufacturing process. Obviously, not enough correction, if at all, was done to prevent the scandal in the following year.

In Sep 2008, several Chinese milk manufacturing companies got into trouble when their products were found to be adulterated with melamine. More than 12,800 were hospitalised and the victims were mainly infants and young children, with four infant deaths.

The incident stirred a wave of panic in Singapore even though no one was sickened by contaminated milk. The sale of dairy products here plunged as people indiscriminately avoided them. One by one, more and more products were told to be removed from the shelves as the Agri-food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) discovered more contaminated items.

Greed, corruption, sluggish regulatory presence are the main reasons behind the Melamine scandal. Have we seen the trio disappear from the Chinese economic and political arena? Apparently not. More scandals and more panics await.

The above are just some examples of past panics. The list is longer and growing.

When the fast-spreading H1N1 flu first took the stage last month, the mood was tense. Many people reacted as they should. However, some over-reacted (i.e. panic) and behaved irrationally. Some seized the opportunity to pursue political and economical agendas, such as mass pig culling and banning of pork imports.

On 11 May, Singapore's Disease Outbreak Response System Alert (DORSCON) status was stepped down from Orange to Yellow. Today, the Singapore Home Quarantine Order (HQO) on recent travellers to Mexico is lifted since its imposition on 4 May.

While these measures help to ease some panic, they also give the perception that the threat is over.

The threat is really far from over for the virus is coming nearer to us. Today, the Malaysian health authorities have just confirmed their first case of H1N1 virus. While there is no need for any manic panic, it serves as a timely reminder to Singaporeans that the game is not over yet.

Having said that, I do not think we should drastically change the way we live and let paranoia lead our behavior. At times like this... no, at all times, common sense always prevails.

I know common sense is often uncommon. Just use whatever you have.

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