This was the reaction of the Swedish government’s own health advisor Hans Wigzell following the news that the Swedish government will only stockpile enough antiviral medication to help around half a million Swedes, barely enough to cover emergency personnel. That, incidentally, includes garbage collectors.
“There is nothing wrong with people wanting to protect their families with medication when a global influenza epidemic is at our front door,” continued Wigzell in Svenska Dagbladet a few days later.
“We need to take care of the concerns that people have, and what I said was realistic.”
Annika Linde, of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control (SMI), reacted angrily and called Wigzell’s comments careless and inappropriate, citing concerns that self-medication could lead to resistance. In a recent trial in Japan the influenza virus became resistant against antiviral medication in one fifth of the cases.
All this was sparked off a few weeks ago by UN officials warning that the Asian bird flu outbreak posed the “gravest possible danger” of becoming a global pandemic There are unsubstantiated fears that it has mutated to a virus that can spread from human to human.
So far, the flu has affected poultry in eight Asian countries, with 55 human deaths among people who caught the strain known as H5N1. The US is preparing trials for a human bird flu vaccine and European countries are working within a programme called Flupan, with Sanofi, EU agencies and the University of Reading in England.
The confusion surrounds the fact that there is neither vaccine nor medication for the H5N1 strain but the New Scientist has reported that a dose of ordinary flu vaccine, or medication with the antiviral influenza drugs such as Tamiflu, within 48 hours of falling ill, might still mean the difference between surviving the illness or dying from it. It’s the “something is better than nothing” philosophy that Wigzell supports.
Dagens Nyheter interviewed Zsuzsanna Jakab, the Head of the new European Infectious Diseases Institute, based in Stockholm. She also expressed her concern at the increased risk of a pandemic; “The thing that we all fear and that we are waiting for is that the virus which is now being spread between birds will mix with the human flu virus and begin to spread person to person. If this happens, the WHO estimates that some 10 to 30 million people could die.”
However, Jakab drew a parallel with SARS and said that they had been successful in containing the outbreak of SARS by closing borders and keeping it locked into a so small area as possible.
And so all governments are finding themselves in a bind; either purchasing large quantities of an already existing vaccine, or medication, or waiting for the ‘right’ one to come along, with the added danger that there will be a production bottle neck of this coincides with a pandemic breaking out.
In this atmosphere of collective paralysis, it is unsurprising that patients with a sense of private enterprise might prefer to help themselves.
The number of people trying to obtain a flu vaccine privately or through their doctors in Sweden has spiralled in the past weeks. When Swedish media reported that Apoteket had sold out its entire stock of Relenza and Tamiflu, the current antiviral medications on the Swedish market, this was vehemently denied by Apoteket.
Information director Thony Björk said that some of their branches are not even meant to stock it and, “we are continually speaking with the suppliers”.
Lysanne Sizoo is a certified Counsellor, specialising in bereavement, fertility and cultural assimilation issues. She also runs a support and discussion group for English speaking women. You can contact her on [email protected], or 08 717 3769. More information on www.sizoo.nu.