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!