It has come a bit later than usual this year but this week finally the terror descended. This winter we are bracing for a “killer” flu. It will be by far the worst winter since time began or at least the worst since last year (whichever is more recent). Even though this is never stated you are left with the impression that there is no doubt we will see bodies in the street!

One can picture the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Eric Idle is calling “Bring out yer dead”.

Every year the script is the same. A call goes out in March for people to have a flu shot. Generally around Easter or late April the warning comes that this year will be particularly bad. In July we hear how the emergency departments are full and how we are in a crisis. Woe is us!

Then it all fades away.
Not once in September have I heard or seen anyone confirm how the just concluded winter has been the “worst” ever. And never have I seen bodies in the street reminiscent of the plague of the 14th century.

This year the panic call has been a bit later than usual. Interestingly it comes only a few weeks after the release of the report into severe reactions to the CSL brand of Flu vaccine in 2010. Essentially what was found was that there was too much virus component left in the vaccine after the manufacturing process and this led to a nine fold increase in side effects in children. The brand is not now approved for children under age five.

One child died after the vaccine and at least one more has been left with major damage. The parents are taking legal action. The rate of vaccination in children fewer than five fell from 43% in 2009 to 6% in 2011. And this is despite the vaccine being provided free by the government.

And what difference did this drop make to illness rates in children? None!

Call me a cynic but I suspect that flu vaccination rates have fallen across the board. Those concerned about major reactions in children may have at the back of their minds the worry of a major reaction in adults too (thus far this has not been the case).

In turn sales of flu vaccines are likely to be affected. Since it can’t be advertised direct to the public, a scare campaign is always a good way to boost sales. A group called the Influenza Specialist Group (Google them – I will not give their site a boost by giving it a link) has put out dire warnings and of course advises vaccination for all. It also promotes the benefits of anti viral medication. A check of the product information on these shows at best can shorten the course by an average 30hours! This is just over a day – at BEST!

The Influenza Specialist Group has a sponsor’s page. No prize for guessing that it is supported by makers of flu vaccines and anti viral medication. It is on the website but you have to look for it and it is not mentioned in press releases or comments.

There are other vested interests at play too. The government is always touchy about emergency departments and so warns everyone about the dangers of flu and in the same breath says, “stay away” and go to your GP. Fair enough but if you have told people there is a killer on the loose enough people will worry and hence go to an emergency department. The Australian Medical Association has chipped in with calls for everyone to be vaccinated, not just those deemed at risk of complications.

A visit to their site reveals that they sell vaccines. No mention is ever made of this in public calls for all to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile the facts tell a different story to the fear mongers. In 2010 there were 2364 deaths related to influenza. Of this 2322 were due to pneumonia and the median age was 86 in males and 89 in females. Realistically at this age you have lived longer than the national average and pneumonia is a complication of flu only in susceptible people. Plus this is the age group most likely to be vaccinated!

So much like with swine flu and avian flu before it, the scare campaign about flu this year is just that – a scare campaign. If you get it you will be unwell for a time and then you get recover. There is much you can do to support your immunity and hence make it less likely you will get flu or other viruses.

There will be no bodies in the street. The world will keep spinning. Come September the current Cassandra’s will as usual, be nowhere to be found.