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Swine flu has triggered an epidemic of media hysteria

The Jobbing Doctor has been affected badly by the latest influenza epidemic. It has been a nightmarish week, where I have felt tossed around like a bit of flotsam on the water. You might be wondering how this has happened.

The Jobbing Doctor has been affected badly by the latest influenza epidemic. It has been a nightmarish week, where I have felt tossed around like a bit of flotsam on the water. You might be wondering how this has happened.

The problem is that the potential of a flu pandemic has finally given the media the opportunity to lose all sense of proportion. Dire prognostications are out there, with computer modelling being the flavour of the day. I think this means putting a few figures on a spreadsheet and seeing how they add up. Or not.

According to one paper the London Borough of Ealing is a very dangerous place to be, with ‘some sources' saying deaths in Ealing could be as high as 9,000. This is not only nonsense: it is nonsense on stilts. I am relieved that I don't live in Ealing. I am also pleased that I don't live in neighbouring Hounslow or Brent. Other papers are free with the language of Hyperbole and exaggeration. People might be scared, if they didn't have more sense.

This has been open season for the public health departments to justify their existence, and they have certainly stepped up to the plate. Roughly every hour during the public health day (which I guess is 10-4) another exciting e-mail with an attachment pings into my in-box from a series of minor functionaries. They love the instruction to ‘forward to all GPs': it really irritates me, I'm afraid.

I suppose this gives an opportunity for the infection control people to stop having to write endless protocols based on nothing much at all, and to feel that they are doing something useful for a change. But their function is very marginal for us. We have been obliged to set out an 8-page plan, and decide on a clinical lead (fortunately not me). We decided what to do over a brief section of a practice meeting.

But actually, the whole episode has a more serious point that clearly delineates the difference between general practitioners and others. You see, we seek to understand and manage risk, whereas public health practitioners seek to eliminate risk. Thus all their decisions are designed with apocalyptic results in mind, and I don't think this is very likely.

The reason that Jobbing Doctor is sanguine about these matters, is that I have been here before. Remember Hong Kong flu? How about Avian flu - that was quite recently - that was said to be an enormous threat, wasn't it? Remember SARS?

So we also have to listen to the politicians using this whole thing as a sideshow to distract from the continuing inability of our legislature to actually legislate effectively. The Chief Medical Officer seems to be having quite a good time of it, and the elected politicians would welcome such a distraction so that they can do ‘concerned' photo opportunities.

So what about Jobbing Doctor's patients? Surely they will be spooked by all this Domesday talk. They will be really worried about all this stuff. Well, we did have one man who had returned from Thailand with a cold ringing up to say that he was worried about it being swine flu. A glance at an atlas would be enough to reassure him. And that was it. No single patient has even mentioned it. They all seem very philosophical, which is a blessed relief from the hysteria of the media, politicians and the public health people.

One of my patients told me a joke: ‘I rang NHS Direct to ask them about swine flu, but all I got was crackling'

Oink! Oink!

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