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No Need to Panic: Swine Flu

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 9 in the October 31 - November 1, 2009 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health, Wellness & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Original article published under the title: Leafs Score 3 Goals, Cup Possible!
Title altered here for research purposes.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

I had just returned from a trip abroad to find a vastly different city from the one I left. You could see it coming, when the Paris newsreels showed a truck full of vaccine being escorted by hordes of flashing police vehicles and was given a triumphant Napoleonic welcome into the city. I returned to find that confusion over a pandemic has been transformed into a "killer flu". Every news outlet or show is talking about it. My colleagues are excitedly talking about how overwhelmed they are with panic-stricken patients. People are scared enough to knock on doors in the middle of the night, keep their kids home from school, avoid social situations, request vaccines, given unnecessary drugs, and so on. Machines and computers are overflowing with worried messages. My own waiting room bears mask-clad victims of well-intentioned guidelines. This is all heightened by the horrible tragedy of a young person's death.

I was also greeted by a strange sight on the tube that deserves a comment. It was a picture on the news depicting hundreds of people standing in a cold downpour for hours waiting for a flu shot, and a health official stating how pleased they were to see this. In my mother's day, standing for hours in the cold rain would result in hours of lecturing while feeding me copious amounts of cod-liver oil alternating with milk, mustard-honey and rubbing Vicks on my chest, and topping off with fine brandy aperitif. I would have liked to think that most people were there in hopes of making a well-balanced and altruistic decision. As I gazed closer into their eyes, it was evident that they were filled with fear. It is the type of panic-driven fear that elicits a primitive protective reflex in all parents, in the face of perceived helplessness. The immense expressions of relief may be premature but supported the point. Sadly, I realized that it was both my colleagues in the media and in health care that unwittingly were aiding in the generation of this panic.

In the ancient Roman city of Pompei there are frescoes that depict rioting in the streets over the outcome of a gladiator match. I was awed that in such an organized, well-planned and cultural place, it was important for artists to render this depiction for all to see. It warns how quickly panic can ensue in the midst of everyday existence when information is over emphasied, and that panic has an ominous potential to escalate quickly.

There is no need to panic. There are positives. For the most part, swine flu is a mild illness that resolves itself in a few days. It affects mostly young people, suggesting some degree of immunity for older folks. For more than 99.5% of those afflicted, it will be just another seasonal illness. Many patients are surprised to be told that their symptoms fit with swine flu. The difference is that they find apprehension and change of attitude if and when they share that information. Mother Nature is providing our population with quickly spreading natural immunity, faster than the flu-shots are being given. It is still safe to get one. Most of the media hype deals with the extremely rare and tragic face of Influenza. Most masks only help to prevent spread from sick individuals but do not prevent infection, since the virus can easily travel through them. Pandemic means a lot of people getting infected but has no bearing on the severity of illness. Influenza is a group of viruses that ideally only borrow our lungs for reproduction. Death is a rare and unfortunate outcome that is often associated with other factors or secondary infections.

One of my favorite sites for information is from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta - www.cdc.gov/flu/. It offers a lot of balance and shows trends. Death of children from influenza is a tragic but seasonal occurrence. In the United States, 116 childhood deaths were reported during the "mild" 2008-2009 season. Our death rate due to swine flu has not yet begun to rise substantially. Mourn the tragic loss of a young person. Please don't panic about the shots, as I am told that they will be in your doctor's office within days. Finally, learn to ask about the rest of the story. Dallas scored 4 goals. The cup is possible, but likely?

Related resources:
Swine influenza from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
2009 H1N1 Flu ("Swine Flu") and You. Questions and answers from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Seasonal Influenza (Flu) from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
2009 flu pandemic from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Swine Flu (Swine Influenza A [H1N1 and H3N2v] Virus) from MedicineNet.
Pandemic: Paranoia or Preparedness? From CHVBV Registered Psychologists, Edmonton, Alberta.
Flu.gov. Flu Shot Locator (seasonal and H1N1) in the United States.
Flu Shots and Clinics in Canada.
Flu (influenza) from Government of Canada. Learn about flu, its causes, symptoms, risks, treatment and prevention. Flu clinics and resources from across Canada.
Influenza. The Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector from Health Canada.
Pandemic Flu from
Flu Pandemics
Types of Influenza.
Pandemic Flu History. 1918-1919, The Great Pandemic. 1957-1958. 1968-1969. 2009-2010.

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