As a child, I recall that the weather would heat up when school went back in the first week of February. Heat waves were a common thing in the Perth summer. Fast-forward to today and a couple of things have changed.
Firstly Perth does not get as hot in summer as when I was growing up. Secondly most schools are now air-conditioned which they were not when I was there. But the most notable thing this week was the description of upcoming hot summer weather. It was no longer a heat wave; it was a “deadly heat wave”.
That’s right! Despite more potential for respite from the heat that we have ever had and arguably more warning than in the past, the Perth summer heat wave now has the gnomes of public health involved. As always they are ready to see a crisis (and a pot of funding to deal with said crisis) wherever they look.
For many years each summer I would be interviewed about ways to handle the heat. The advice was the same each year. Drink plenty of water, find shade and stay indoors if you can. If you must be outside wear loose protective clothing and of course pump the fluids.
It is not rocket science. There were no bodies in the streets. People knew what to do and they coped. Hard to believe that we could survive in the days before public health told us how to live our lives but somehow we did.
In March the push will start in the southern hemisphere for flu vaccination. Every year we are told that this year will be a killer flu and amazingly, by winter’s end each year is much the same as all the preceding ones.
A small announcement that did not get much coverage was that reports of the 2015 flu season being “severe” were misleading. The number of cases was much the same as the previous five years.
And here is the corker. Australian data confirmed that flu vaccination provides between 40 and 50% protection. This is consistent with data from the US, which shows effectiveness between 20 and 55% depending on year.
Now 50% is not bad but is hardly remarkable, especially for an illness, which is not severe in the vast majority of people. Imagine if truth in advertising applied to medical claims. The health department would tell you to get your flu vaccination, which has a 50% (at best) chance of stopping you getting three strains of influenza out of hundreds of flu like strains.
The queues might be a bit shorter than usual.
Meanwhile the Zika virus story continues to develop. The virus causes a mild illness with headache fever and lethargy. Some do not get any symptoms. The main issue is that is has been linked to the congenital deformation microcephaly. In this a baby is born with a small head and brain. Whilst Zika has not been shown as the cause the link is strong enough to take seriously.
The WHO has called it a global emergency. The virus is not new although the number of cases is greater than previously seen. There will be talk of developing a vaccine and much other hype. Yet there are already simple inexpensive ways to minimize the chances of avoiding Zika.
It is spread by mosquito bites, not person to person (there is supposedly one case of sexual transmission reported in the USA). Thus there cannot be an epidemic.
The same measures that prevent Dengue fever and malaria apply. Avoid swamps where mosquitos breed. Use insect repellant. Wear long protective clothes if you are out at dusk. Don’t go to areas where the virus is prevalent unless you have to.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. So far the response has been measured and appropriate. However public health has the ability to turn anything into a crisis (remember swine flu).
Be it flu, Zika or a hot day in summer, it is something to deal with, not a crisis.
Dr Joe Kosterich M.B.B.S is an author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, who wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life. Dr Joe also gives practical, motivational health talks for the general public and organisations where he is known as “An independent doctor who talks about health”.
His latest book “60 minutes to Better Health” is available on Amazon.