Swine flu skepticism demands deft response
LONDON (Reuters) – European scientists and health authorities are facing angry questions about why H1N1 flu has not caused death and destruction on the scale first feared, and they need to respond deftly to ensure public support.
Accusations are flying in British and French media that the pandemic has been “hyped” by medical researchers to further their own cause, boost research grants and line the pockets of drug companies.
Britain’s Independent newspaper this week asked “Pandemic? What Pandemic?.”
In their response, scientists are walking a fine line.
They say that although the virus is mild, it can still kill, and that the relatively low fatalities in Europe are in part the result of official response to their advice.
On suggestions of “hyping” the threat to boost research funding, they point out that while we know enough to start to protect the vulnerable, we need to know a lot more to conquer the virus, and funding for new research and drugs is vital to be equipped for future pandemics.
H1N1 is hitting a younger population — adults in their 20s and 30s and children — and the global death count so far is more than 6,000, according to the WHO.
While seasonal flu attacks about 20 percent of the population in an average year, experts estimate that even in Britain — the worst-hit country in Europe so far — fewer than 10 percent of people have had H1N1 swine flu.
Fred Hayden, influenza research co-ordinator at the Wellcome Trust and a former World Health Organization (WHO) expert, said early planning is paying off, but added:
“I wouldn’t characterize this as a “mild” pandemic at all. We are seeing some very unfortunate loss of life. I think it a bit early to make that judgment.”
Yet the word “mild” is used so often to describe H1N1‘s impact in most people that it is prompting skeptical publics to ask what all the fuss is about. Why they should care? And why take a vaccine?
France’s Le Parisien newspaper ran the headline: “Swine flu: why the French distrust the vaccine” and noted a gap between the predicted impact of H1N1 and the less dramatic reality.
“Although some 30-odd people have died….the disease is not really frightening,” it said. “Dangerous liaisons between certain experts, the labs and the government, the obscurity of the contracts between the state and the pharma firms have added to the doubt.”