Today, when you think about swine flu you either feel that you’ve been had or you’ve been lucky. The truth is that the flu pandemic had very few victims in terms of mortality but has killed public trust in the system.
The whole dynamic of what happened during 2009 – the intense fear that paralysed the first world, the globalisation, the interpretation of data, the minute-to-minute follow up or the part played by the media – were unique.
Looking back into it now seems almost surreal. For several weeks back in April and May we all felt at high risk of death or severe illness, we all praised how the WHO took charge and how health authorities all over the world worked together; at the time, vaccines, antiviral, prevention measures all seemed appropriate. We were all in the same boat.
By June things started to change, we already had data about what happened in the southern hemisphere and the numbers confirmed that the H1N1 was highly contagious but caused very little mortality.
During the summer, one boat turned into two boats. One boat carried the health authorities, the government and the media, and another boat took the growing number of sceptics. The internet played a revolutionary part during these months for some underground information.
I’ll tell you what happened in Spain, which was probably different to how it went in Britain, perhaps because the Spaniards are never good at following orders; here there was a strong and well organised group of medical bloggers called Gripe A, ante todo mucha calma (Swine flu, remain calm) and a few other medical blogs that started to look at the situation with more critical eyes and who were welcomed and religiously followed by medical and lay population alike.
As the weeks went by, and the mismatch in between what we were told might happen and what was really happening increased, the GPs in their surgeries became more and more despondent with the official information and unsurprisingly the vaccination campaign was a huge failure.
By December, the BMJ and Channel 4 unveiled a huge scandal: the studies used by the WHO to recommend the use of Tamiflu were scattered and paid by Roche itself. The investigation also questioned the effectiveness of the drug.
Strangely enough, in the last few months we have seen several simple studies on the immunity to the H1N1 published by Science and The Lancet. They show what we have already realised, that a large part of the population was already immunized since this virus was not new at all.
Why did the governments of the world prefer to use their resources to buy unproven vaccines rather than trigger studies to learn the real risk? Why did they carry on with a policy of fear after July?
I personally think we were had and I am terribly disappointed to see that we abandoned the current obsession with evidence based medicine and moved to a medicine based on clairvoyance. Resources were used as if they were unlimited and we allowed the media to manipulate us all through the irresponsible use of the power of words and images.
There are two clear victims of the flu pandemic, the trust of the population in national and international health authorities and the trust of the population in vaccination.
Both of them might be irreparably damaged, with dangerous consequences. We surely have a lot of lessons to learn, saying that we were just lucky is simply not enough.