If we had not known…

Influenza is a strange “hobby” and one would hardly think there was much to it, it’s “only the flu” after all. The reality is, however, that influenza can be a very complicated disease [for some] and it is a virus that changes with regularity. Added to the mix are the variants of influenza itself. Toss those three things together: variable disease profiles, the collection of 144 influenza A strains, the mutable nature of the virus and presto – a “hobby” that never seems to lose its ability to surprise.

The Independent [UK] has an uncommonly astute opinion piece on our collective state of mind where 2009 H1N1 is concerned: Keep calm and carry on [excerpts with emphasis added].

As any pedant knows, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was printed in 1939 but never displayed – at least, not until 2005, when it became the latest equivalent of “You Don’t Have to Be Mad to Work Here … But It Helps”. One of the reasons for its popularity may have been that it offers such a multilayered rebuke to the tendency of today’s media to overreaction and panic.

The swine flu pandemic is the starkest recent example of the difficulties we have as a nation in dealing with the concept of risk. The Government, the media and the general public have all struggled to make sense of the threat that arose in April when cases of swine flu were first reported in Mexico. Partly because of the scare over Sars in China and Canada in 2003, and partly because officials had been so well-prepared for the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, public opinion was already sensitised to the possibility of a new strain of flu virus spreading quickly around the world and killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Even those who are not “flu obsessed” had some level of exposure to the concepts and concerns of a novel pandemic influenza, even if only on a subconscious – subliminal level.

This point is what set this opinion piece apart, and above, most everything else we’ve suffered through reading from our popular media:

Perhaps the most telling thought experiment is this: if we had not known about the existence of swine flu, would we have noticed that anything unusual was happening? Many adults have felt ill in the past two months; some might even have had swine flu. Many of us have children who have been sick and run a high temperature for a few days. Had we not heard about pandemics from the media and NHS information campaigns, we might have used words such as “flu” and “stomach bug” loosely, and carried on.

It’s a point well worth contemplating as we approach a flu season that will likely be much more active than we normally face.

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