Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Swine Flu Hysteria

As I am writing this, a much feared disease is sweeping the planet Earth.

At the beginning of April, a little boy in Mexico, five-year-old Edgar Hernandez, became sick and he is now known as patient zero.

On 6 April, thousands had become sick in Mexico and the local authority declared a health alert.

On 17 April, this illness spread to Southern California which is bordering Mexico and we had the first known infection outside Mexico. The disease continued to spread.

On 24 April, at least 20 deaths were reported in Mexico. On the same day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) pressed its warning button.

On 29 April, the first case of death occurred outside Mexico and the WHO raised its alert level to phase five, which is the second highest, giving the signal that a pandemic is 'imminent'.

By then, about 60 people in Mexico have died although many believe that the number was under-reported. Hundreds in many other countries including UK, New Zealand, Israel and Spain, were also reported to have been infected.

On 1 May, Asia saw its first confirmed case in Hong Kong. Over at Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak, the local authorities ordered a five-day shutdown to slow down the spread. The world now saw 13 countries officially infected with the disease.

On 5 May, one more death occurred outside Mexico and more than 20 countries have reported confirmed cases and over 1700 people worldwide have been sickened.

Within a short span of time, the disease changes the social landscape in many cities and they called it the "Swine Flu".

The disease is so named because the virus was originally known to be transmitting from pig to pig. It has since developed into a new strain and it is now causing human-to-human infections.

The WHO has explained that one will not be infected by eating pork. However, that did not prevent some knee-jerk reactions. China and Russia have since banned imports of pork from countries with known infection and Egypt has ordered for the culling of all their pigs.

Looks like the 'Swine Flu' hysteria is spreading faster than the virus itself.

Such overreaction has prompted the WHO to drop the name 'Swine Flu' and renamed the disease Influenza A (H1N1) on 30 April. I guess the first impression always counts and mere relabeling is unlikely to do much justice to the pigs.

While knee-jerk reactions may be frowned upon, non-responsiveness is also not well tolerated. For this, the WHO is being blamed for being too slow in their response to the crisis. It appears that the Mexican authorities had informed the WHO of the alarming situation but it took the WHO more than a week to issue a health warning.

Nothing too unusual here. I have not heard of a crisis that goes by without any blaming game. It is always tough to strike a balance between being responsive and not being overreacting.

Here in Singapore, the health alert level was raised very quickly from green, to yellow and to orange. Many people are feeling the dejavu as the 2003 SARS episode seems so recent. The familiar dreaded scene of people queuing at public places, waiting to have their ears poked by a thermometer constantly sends a grim reminder of the SARS crisis.

Suddenly, terms such as 'home quarantine', 'temperature checks' and 'business continuity plan' come pouring back. Our routine is disturbed as more inconvenience is piled onto it. Our behavior begins to change as people becoming worried and paranoid. Even the looming economic crisis appears to be temporarily taking a backseat.

We may think that we should be more ready after SARS. Not quite so. It seems that 'Swine Flu' is a new strain of virus and it is more unpredictable. A new wave of human-germ battle has just begun.

The WHO and the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) is taking no chances in containing 'Swine Flu', presumably because they have been informed of the scale of damage the disease can bring. The word 'flu' seems nonthreatening to a lay person like me but I guess I would just have to believe the experts that we do have a worrying situation here.

Amidst the increasingly tense mood, I take a moment to reflect on this new biological threat.

I am not laughing at the relatively low number of death caused by 'Swine Flu' and I am not undermining the danger it poses. However, I do know that there are numerous other prevailing threatening diseases that have been killing many people everyday for a long time. Why aren't such diseases causing the same panic? Ever heard of AIDS or malaria?

Let's just look at Malaria which is an infectious disease widespread in tropical places. Every year, there are about 500 million acute cases with nearly three million deaths. Most of the casualties involve young children in Africa.

Since when did the WHO get very busy raising its alert level because Malaria is killing 3000 people a day?

Puzzling, isn't it?

I know I do not have a basis to say what I am about to say, but let's not pretend.

Malaria is taking lots of lives but these are lives in the Third World. Swine Flu is taking some lives and infecting hundreds in the First World and it is causing dramatic headline effects across the world.

Malaria is preventable, treatable and curable with relatively little. A cheap mosquito net can save the lives of many and yet, millions are left to die. On the other hand, 'Swine Flu' is causing some deaths and the world in spending large sums of money to take precautionary measures to prevent more deaths.

I do see an issue of disproportion here.

Are we being bias because we think that lives in some parts of the world are worth less? Do you think the world will be so concerned if 'Swine Flu' is a contagious disease contained within the Third World? How do you think the media will play up the stories if hundreds of First World citizens lost their lives to Malaria?

I think you know the answers.

I am not taking the imminent pandemic lightly. I follow the news closely just like many who are concerned. However, I cannot help feeling rather disturbed by the disproportionate attention it gets from the WHO and health authorities in the First World.

While we are fighting off this pandemic, let's not forget that millions have lost their lives to various diseases every year before 'Swine Flu' hit the town. Many millions more will continue to die long after 'Swine Flu' is tamed if the world continue to stay oblivious.

When one hundred people die of swine flu, the whole world rushed for the masks. When one million people die of AIDS, few believe in wearing a condom. It is really hard to comprehend such lopsided
behavior sometimes.

'Swine Flu' may be dreadful but let's spare some thoughts for victims of other diseases in a no lesser way. Every human life is equally precious and each deserves the same chance to be saved.

Let's pray that 'Swine Flu', err... ok fine, 'Influenza A (H1N1)' will be tamed soon.

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