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Getting Tamiflu for my wife was easy. But should she take it?

It was one piece of field research I’d be hoping to avoid – but this week I finally got to take the National Pandemic Flu Service for a spin.

It was one piece of field research I'd be hoping to avoid – but this week I finally got to take the National Pandemic Flu Service for a spin.



The sore throat started Sunday morning, the sniffles Sunday afternoon. My wife tried to make it into work on Monday morning, insisting there were all kinds of other explanations for the headaches she was starting to feel, but at lunchtime she admitted defeat and came home. When she started feeling really sick – repeatedly, vomiting sick – by Monday evening, we gave up. It was time to call the Government's National Pandemic Flu Service.

Getting the Tamiflu was, it has to be said, very easy. A five-minute chat with a call centre operative, an access code, details of a pharmacy to go to and by first thing Tuesday morning I'd collected the strangely familiar packet. But then my wife had to decide – should she actually take it?

There were several reasons why, perhaps, she shouldn't. For a start, by the time I'd collected it on Tuesday morning, she was feeling much better, the vomiting having stopped. Both the helpline and the pharmacist had warned that the Tamiflu was likely to induce further vomiting. Perhaps it was better to let it be?

Then there's the antiviral backlash, in full swing this week. First two expert reviews argued that the Department of Health was wrong to tackle the pandemic with widespread antiviral use. Then, in a highly charged TV interview, GMTV presenter Andrew Castle took the Health Secretary to task, telling Mr Burnham that his daughter had ‘almost died' after taking Tamiflu. His daughter, I noticed, suffers from asthma - as does my wife.

And then today, the MHRA revealed the latest figures on reports of suspected adverse reactions to Tamiflu – more than 400 in total, including 125 in the past week. Given the large number of people – both statistically and anecdotally – who've recovered fully without the use of antivirals, is taking them really necessary? Privately, a number of GPs I've spoken to have said that, if a member of their family showed suspected symptoms, they wouldn't advise them to use antivirals.

And what if it wasn't swine flu? We'd both had mild flu-like symptoms a couple of months ago, wondered briefly if it could have been swine flu, and then both recovered remarkably quickly from what was, after all, a glorified cold. The National Pandemic Flu Service warned us, several times, emphatically, that this was my wife's one and only dose of Tamiflu. What if she wasted it on something that wasn't the real deal?

Patients aren't stupid. We're used to the fact that prescription medication often comes with some risks and side-effects. But normally, that medication is prescribed after a consultation with a doctor, or at least a healthcare professional, who assesses the symptoms, talks through the risks and makes a recommendation to the patient.

The problem here is that the prescription was based entirely on a five-minute chat with a very young operative who was very good at reading a script, but reminded me twice during our extremely brief conversation that she was reading from said script, emphasising that she had zero medical knowledge to boot.

So, for the time being, the Tamiflu sits unused, and the time for using it effectively has probably passed. ‘Stay at home and take paracetemol', advised TV GP and HPA board member Dr Rosemary Leonard at the end of June, arguing that swine flu is an ‘incredibly minor illness'.

I'm hoping she was right.

'Normally, medication is prescribed after a consultation with a doctor, or at least a healthcare professional' Steve Nowottny

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