A pandemic of fantasy flu

This year’s swine flu panic crowned a decade in which the gap between public-health scaremongering and reality was vast.

The great swine flu pandemonium of 2009 confirmed the emergence of a parallel universe of official public health increasingly remote from real-world medical practice.

Access to the virtual reality of Pandemic Fantasy Flu is, unfortunately for the public welfare, readily available through the National Pandemic Flu hotline. Pandemic alarums are transmitted from the government and the health authorities to the public, accompanied by a propaganda barrage directed at hospitals and surgeries, and amplified by a compliant mass media.

This is how it works. In the real world, a lot of people have been getting a bit of a cold. Some, especially if they are already unwell, are at risk of more serious complications and a few have died.

Meanwhile, in the world of Pandemic Fantasy Flu, a new virus threatens a global pestilence, from which everyone is in danger. Projected death rates in the UK started at 65,000 and were reduced to 19,000; the most optimistic scenario was around 3,000 deaths (the total so far is around 300, much less than die every year from seasonal flu). When the first wave, last summer, was conspicuously mild, we were on alert for a devastating second wave in the autumn, which stubbornly refused to appear. Now, we are being warned to be vigilant in case the virus mutates and becomes virulent in the spring.

If people with symptoms suggestive of flu contact their local doctor, they are likely to be told that they might have swine flu, or that they could be infected by one of 200 other respiratory viruses. Indeed it may be that they, or their children, have something else entirely (such as meningitis, glandular fever, bronchiolitis, gastroenteritis – all conditions mistakenly diagnosed as swine flu). They are likely to be told that a drug, Tamiflu, has been licensed for the treatment of swine flu, but that it is not very effective and has significant side effects and is therefore, on balance, unlikely to be of benefit.

On the other hand, the very act of phoning the swine-flu hotline confirms a diagnosis of swine flu. And, if you’ve got swine flu, and they’ve got a shed-full of Tamiflu that the government is desperate to offload, then you are likely to get a prescription for this marginally effective medication. Many people complete the swine flu circle by then phoning their doctor to get a second opinion.

The world of Pandemic Fantasy Flu has emerged from the sphere of recreational healthcare that has been the major health policy achievement of the New Labour decade. Just as the national hotline is the gateway to the parallel universe of Pandemic Fantasy Flu, so the health telephone line NHS Direct, claimed by Tony Blair as one of the great achievements of his term as prime minister, is emblematic of the world of the worried well and the scared sick. Three principles govern the new order, which is dedicated not merely to health, but to ‘wellbeing’:

  • ‘If you’re ill it’s your fault’: for your unhealthy lifestyle and dirty habits;
  • ‘All diseases can be prevented’: by virtuous living and thinking positive thoughts;
  • ‘A complete check-up is your last chance’: early diagnosis keeps premature death at bay.

Though there is no good evidence for any of these propositions – and much to suggest that the pursuit of these principles could make you ill – they have become intrusive and destructive influences on medical practice over recent years. My hope for 2010 is that the swine flu fiasco will encourage more people to reject the virtual reality of pandemic fears and to question the moralising imperative of the new regime of public health with its incessant public warnings and propaganda. My fear is that the world of Pandemic Fantasy Flu will increasingly engulf the real world of medical practice.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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