We'll be all right (probably)

Let's stop panicking and let the swine flu experts do their job, says Kevin Fong

August 6, 2009

It is nearly impossible to get away from swine flu at the moment - literally and thematically. I tried pretty hard to find a good reason not to devote a column to it, but the pandemic seems finally to have reached our campuses.

It is hard to know precisely how to behave, how to deal with the risk presented - at organisational level or as individuals. An astronaut once told me that he is constantly reassured by the knowledge that everything is probably going to be OK. He stresses the word "probably" because he doesn't know for certain. However, he has faith in the checks and balances put in place to keep him safe, so "probably" is good enough. This thought comforts him whether he's sitting in a rocket or driving home from the supermarket. It's not a bad way to be.

This week it was reported that universities across the country are gearing up their emergency contingency plans in preparation for the new academic year. These include stocking up on rubber gloves and soap and banning soft toys in preparation for the start of term. Actually, the cuddly-toy measure is supposed to be for children in nurseries, but there's no harm in applying it to colleges, if only to sort out the teddy-bear-hoarding weirdos.

Come September, all our students have to do, we are told, is use their common sense and take note of health advice. But undergraduates tend not to have a very highly developed sense of self-preservation. In their minds, they are bulletproof, indestructible and made of rubber - I cite my time as a doctor in a university hospital casualty department, treating members of the college's Cordless Bungee Jumping Society, as evidence in support of this fact.

Realising this, someone suggested that freshers' week might actually have to be cancelled this year. The campus-wide civil unrest and sporadic rioting that would inevitably break out as a result is presumably seen as the lesser of two evils.

For those who may have missed it, the official health advice on swine flu goes something like this:

1. Wash your hands. Go on, wash them. Wash them again; this time with soap. And again; this time maybe use some water, too.

2. Don't cough and sneeze on people. It's disgusting, always has been, and it spreads germs. Use a tissue and consider it a single-use item. Throw it away afterwards. On this occasion, the environment can take the hit; trust me.

3. Stay at home if you're feeling sick. Even if there's a really, really good drinks promotion on at the bar and the person you've been sharking all your life is definitely going to be there.

4. If you're sick, get a buddy to check up on you to make sure you're OK.

5. Look at the National Health Service website www.nhs.uk/AlertsEmergencies/Pages/Pandemicflualert.aspx and follow the instructions.

It's worth drumming this message into the new intake. And this, in itself, will be no mean feat. The handling of the communications side of this pandemic is a complex problem and has, at times, left a lot to be desired. Allowing a worst-case projected fatality figure of 65,000 to enter the public consciousness was, for example, a bit of a low point. In part, this reflects the difficulty that we as a society have in communicating, understanding and accepting risk. But communicate we must.

The emergency planning teams have their work cut out for them, and you can understand why sometimes they get things a little bit wrong. These people spend their time evaluating threats, putting flesh on the bones of incomplete information, differentiating those risks that can be accepted and borne by society from those that need mitigating. It's a crap job, really. If the plan works, everyone wonders what all the fuss and expense was about; if it fails, the strategists are assumed to be in some way negligent. There's nothing in between. It's like working for the secret service, only with no opportunity to sip a Martini or drive an Aston Martin. The challenge facing public health organisations is also formidable. They have to raise awareness to a level high enough that people can be counted on to do the simple but important things that they are supposed to do, but not so high that Joe Bloggs is out there holding up chemists with a shotgun in an effort to get hold of some Tamiflu.

The important point here is that there are whole organisations paid to be kept awake at night by the thought of "what if?" so that we as individuals can sleep a little more soundly. It is worth trusting them to do their job. It is uncertain precisely how this pandemic will unfold. It is not clear whether it has peaked for now or whether it will come back in time to nip at the heels of our freshers' fairs. But whatever happens, it is worth remembering that we, even in the gnarliest of extrapolations, are more than probably going to be all right. For now, at least, that should be more than good enough.

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