At the beginning of the summer it looked as if we could be on the brink of a major health epidemic that could bring the country to its knees. A huge machine went to work preparing for the impending cataclysm. Six months later the swine flu epidemic has been a bit of a damp squib, and the medical profession looks as if it has been ‘crying wolf’ yet again.
Millions of pounds were spent on vaccines and antivirals and a great deal of anxiety has been generated. So was this incompetence? And, are we going to point the finger of blame at someone?
The retrospectoscope is a great and wonderful tool. Looking back to the summer there was a very real threat of a new strain of a virus, which had the potential to spread rapidly across the world. Attempts at containment were unlikely to succeed. In addition, there was evidence from South America showing that this new virus had the potential to be highly virulent, and worst case scenarios suggested that up to 65,000 people could have died.
Those responsible for planning services across the country are in an unenviable opinion. If they under react and under plan then they risk leaving the country vulnerable to a great plague that will cause untold misery and grief. If they over react then they will be accused of unnecessarily crying wolf and wasting money. And if they look indecisive then they appear weak.
Swine flu has been a global problem and the planners in this country will have looked carefully at what the rest of the world was doing. And it looks like everyone else got it about as wrong as we did. Well actually some of them got it even more wrong. The French, for example, bought 94 million doses of vaccine – more than the population of the country – and they only used 5m of them. Now they are desperately trying to unload their excess stock.
And figures published in Le Monde showed that some other parts of Western Europe bought enough vaccine to immunise their whole population twice over. The US and Canada also bought considerably more than they have used, with Canada recently donating 5m surplus doses to Mexico.
There are some that think we have drawn a line under this too quickly. Flu epidemics come in threes, and we still haven’t seen the end of it. The WHO is still warning that it will be a year before the crisis is over. So maybe before we rush to put our excess vaccines onto eBay we should just wait a little longer.
Doctors are naturally cautious and I think most of us think that the government largely got it right. It is far better to slightly overreact rather than the opposite. I think the majority of taxpayers would agree with this too.
However the green-ink conspiracy theorists have been on the case and are pointing their fingers at the drug companies. They are suggesting that some of the independent experts sitting on WHO committees have financial links with the pharmaceutical industry. And one blog posting goes further and points the finger at an individual.
Should we believe the conspiracy theorists? Probably not. The allegations may well turn out to be totally without merit or validity. Whenever a mistake is made then there is always someone ready to leap forward and claim that there is a conspiracy at work. But, with such large sums of money at stake, we do need to be reassured about what went on.