Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

H1N…1 down … 3 to go???


I’m not sure how the rest of the world is doing this week, but here in Newfoundland there’s only one news story. The H1N1 “swine flu” virus has hit, just ahead of the vaccine and accompanied by truckloads of confusion, fear and hysteria.


We have sick people, people who are afraid of getting sick, people who want to keep their kids out of school on the off chance they might get sick, people who want schools to be closed till the virus passes.  We have people who believe the vaccine is an evil government plot, and people who are jumping the lines to get vaccinated illegally.

Here in the Morgan-Cole household, what we have is one sick boy, now improving, and three people who are desperately hoping not to get sick.  Chris has been down since Sunday morning with fever, aches, fatigue all the typical flu symptoms. The fever lasted three days, the fatigue most of the week, and now he’s left mostly with a nagging cough. He’s missed a full week of school, and plenty of his friends are in the same boat.

It’s so hard to sort out everything you hear about the flu, to know what’s true and what’s hype.  To vaccinate or not? It is “just another seasonal flu” or something much more serious? We’re bombarded day and night by constant news updates, discussion, commentary, and new bulletins from Eastern Health two or three times a day.

Loving history as I do, it’s hard not to wonder what it was like here nearly 90 years ago, when the Spanish influenza epidemic passed through.

They called it the Spanish flu, though it appeared in the US, China and France before it ever got to Spain. It was a particularly virulent strain of H1N1, unusual in that unlike most flus, its victims were more likely to be young healthy people rather than the old, sick, and babies. Sound familiar? It spread pretty much world-wide, with a first wave that was not too serious and a second, much more serious wave of infection passing through months later (as some people predict will happen next year).

Between 20 and 40 million people died worldwide.  Of those, about 600 people died in Newfoundland over a five-month period.  62 people died in St. John’s and 170 in the outports, but the majority of deaths were in the hard-hit native communities in Labrador.  In Hebron, Labrador, 86 of the 100 inhabitants died. So far (as of my writing this today) no-one has yet died in Newfoundland of this year’s H1N1 epidemic, but once again it’s Labrador and our native communities that seem to be hit hardest.

There was panic in those days, too.  The flu was brought to Newfoundland by sailors in September 1918, and “by mid-October, Medical Officer of Health N.S. Fraser had closed the city’s schools, theatres, concert halls, and other public buildings to help prevent the virus from spreading.” (Check out Heritage NL’s website on the 1918 flu

I’d love to have people who know more about disease and epidemiology tell me how the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic differed from this year’s strain.  I know a little about how society differs.  I know that now, thanks to the brilliance of scientists, we are blessed to have vaccines to prevent viruses, and antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, although I also know that scientists have to work hard and fast to be smarter than the constantly-mutating viruses and bacteria.

I also know that the sources of information we have available to us today are infinitely more vast and varied than they were in 1918.  Back then, they pretty much had to rely on newspapers and word of mouth.  There must have been panic and confusion as people were unsure what was happening and nobody knew what to believe or what was going to happen next.

Fortunately, in 2009, we have endless sources of information … newspaper, radio, numerous television stations, and of course constant updates on the internet … Facebook … Twitter.  As a result, there’s panic and confusion as people are unsure what’s happening and nobody knows what to believe or what will happen next. It seems too much information is just as dangerous and confusing as too little. The fear of the flu, so far, seems to be doing a lot more damage than the flu itself.

I think the ideal time for a world-wide flu pandemic would have been sometime after most forms of mass media were introduced, but before the Internet and the 500-channel universe.  Maybe if we had had a good pandemic in the 1960s or 1970s, everyone could have tuned into the nightly news, gotten their information from a single trusted news source, and things would have proceeded in an orderly fashion.  Now, it’s just too late.

I guess we’re all hanging our hopes on the possibility that the widespread vaccination program will halt the spread of the disease and avoid a repeat of a 1918-style devastating pandemic.  As for me, I’ve got one kid who seems to be recovering from it and another one I’m getting vaccinated later today.  And watching with interest to hope history doesn’t repeat itself!


8 thoughts on “H1N…1 down … 3 to go???

  1. 3 of our four were hit. Tatiana is in her fourth week of coughing and a fever that seems to come back every few days. The other two don’t seem to be hit as hard, though we’ll see if it hangs on with them like it has with Tatiana.

    Melissa doesn’t want them to get vaccinated. I’m less sure (especially if there might be a second, more virulent wave!). Of course, there is only one more kid to bother having vaccinated since the other three are already hit.

  2. Were your kids confirmed as having H1N1? I was assuming that was what Chris had since that’s what’s going round and it seems to fit all the symptoms, but the nurse at the clinic when I took Emma for her vaccination said Chris should still have it, because unless his flu has been lab-confirmed as H1N1 they are still recommending kids get the vaccine.

  3. No, they won’t even test for it here. If it’s the flu they just tell you it’s H1N1.

  4. Yeah, they mostly aren’t testing here either, and we had heard unofficially that you should assume it’s H1N1 if you have the flu, but apparently for vaccination purposes they still want to give the vaccine to kids who have had flu.

  5. The wave has hit Finland as well. Much later than expected.

  6. This will be the third flu pandemic in my lifetime — the first was in 1957, and the second in 1968 — and so far, this one is looking pretty mild.

    “Pandemic,” remember, refers to the prevalence of a disease, not its severity. And unless things change, we’re looking at a flu season in which lots and lots of people get sick . . . but they probably won’t get quite as sick as they would have if they’d caught a “normal” batch of flu.

    So . . . wash your hands, get the vaccine (if you can), stay home and drink plenty of fluids if you’re sick, and try to avoid watching the news on TV. If you’d like to know more, try the website of the Centers for Disease Control — I’ve found it to be the most helpful.

  7. Greg, I don’t know much about the 1957 and 1968 pandemics, and I’m wondering — since they are in the very era of limited mass-media that I was talking about — was the panic less in those cases than it is today, and if so, do you think that was due to the fact that people weren’t so overwhelmed with information as they are today?

    Chris got over his flu with no complications. Emma has had the vaccine, and is having cold-y symptoms today, a week later, but doesn’t seem to have the flu. I think news reports of deaths really do blow people’s fear out of all proportion. The week Chris was sick, a 10-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy died in other parts of Canada, and those reports really fuelled parents’ fears. This past week we had our first two flu deaths in Nfld — a 36 year old woman and a 40 year old man. While every death is, of course, a terrible tragedy, we do have to keep it in perspective and remember how small the numbers actually are, thus how remote the chances of actually dying of this flu.

  8. Hmmm . . . certainly you don’t need modern mass-media to start a panic. Think of the 1919 flu pandemic, for instance, or even the Black Death.

    But there does seem to be more anxiety this time around than there was in 1957 or 1968 — and yes, some of is due to the irresponsible way these issues are covered. Here in the USA, for instance, we’ve had 3900 deaths from flu in the past six months, and over 30,000 deaths from diabetes. Guess which cause of death makes headlines?

    Then again, we are much more aware of the damage flu can do than we were in the past . . . and this particular strain of swine flu does seem to be hitting children and pregnant women especially hard. (Of those 3900 deaths here in the USA, for instance, 540 were children.) As a parent, that’s enough to make me worry right there.

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