Common sense needed in the fight against pandemics

By Eiko Yabe

The holidays have come to an end and we once again come into contact with our colleagues and our ever-so-friendly fellow commuters. Of course, this also means its the best time for the spreading of influenza. The bonenkai and shinnenkai seasons are when we take part in excessive drinking and overeating and consequently are the most prone to becoming infected. In mid-December, the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center announced that Japan had evidently entered its influenza season. The center estimates that the peak of infections will be the same as usual from the end of January to the beginning of February. But still, the central government and the media try to scare us everyday into thinking that things may turn out to be far from normal this year.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has prepared 26 million influenza vaccines, 3 million of GalaxoSmithKlein Plc’s Relenza pills, and 9 million of Roche’s Tamiflu pills to combat the season. The national stock of the drugs has been doubled since last year from a supply, capable of covering 23 percent of the population to a coverage of 45 percent. This is said to be due to the hysterical fear of the overhyped danger of a mutated H5N1 avian bird flu pandemic, which would, in the worst case scenario, kill an estimated 71 million people worldwide. It was first localized in 2003 as a lethal mutantation of H5N2, and since then has killed 245 out of the 387 infected in 15 countries. The majority of the deaths were in South East Asia and the infected were mostly poultry farmers who were in close contact with the already infected birds.

It has been made extremely clear that the aforementioned traditional vaccines are incapable of defending us from any H5N1 pandemic. Inevitably, we begin to suspect the government is trying to simply scare us into injecting ourselves with whatever they say might make us immune to bird flu. The drugs aren’t cheap either. In Tamiflu’s case, an adult would pay an average of 4,000 yen per shot, and research has shown that even the original H5N2 strain is starting to show resistance to the drug. And how are the parents supposed to prepare their children for the influenza season when they know about the hallucinogenic effects of the drug? All in all, why has the government stocked so much Tamiflu using taxpayer’s money? It is as though they are half-heartedly scamming our money away from our already empty pockets.

There are proposals of mass producing what is known as the “pre-pandemic vaccine” specific to H5N1 virus, created from the original virus found in Hong Kong in 2003. Japan already has stockpiled enough for 200 million people worth of this vaccine in stock at the minute, and there has been talk that enough for another 100 million will be produced this year. Tests are being carried out to examine its effectiveness and safety. But the nature of viruses allows them to adapt and modify into multiple strains, and the total selectivity of the H5N1 pre-pandemic vaccine may just result in the discarding of a whole batch.

What must happen is for us to learn from the “the pandemic that never was” in America in 1976. An outburst of swine-flu caused by the H1N1 virus at an army base camp in New Jersey led to a massive panic nationwide. This promptly forced President Ford to prepare 5 million vaccines. The hasty vaccinations led to a large number of recipients displaying evident side-effects such as Guillain Barre Syndrome (an inflammatory disorder in which the immune system attacks the periphery nerves leading to paralysis and death).

There is so much we can learn from this truly irresponsible blunder, but the most critical lesson to be learned is that people must keep their heads in these situations. They also need to question the motives of the information that we get bombarded with. We need to be exposed to the opinions of specialists with opposing views, rather than dwelling on articles and TV programs which just aim to scare us into believing the pandemic could explode at any minute now. It is easy to be struck by fear, or sometimes to be to complacent in times when action is needed; the difficulty comes in creating a balance – being alert enough to be prepared and act accordingly in times of emergency.

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