The roll-out of the swine flu vaccine is set to start next week with the prediction that a quarter of the population will contract this new pandemic flu.
That is perhaps reassuring and daunting - reassuring that the Government and our health service claim they are prepared for an outbreak that will affect more than one million people in Ireland – daunting because the consequences of such a huge percentage of the population contracting the virus will have obvious knock-on affects –some of which we simply cannot predict.
According to the World Health Organisation, as at October 11, 2009, worldwide there have been more than 399,232 laboratory-confirmed cases of pandemic influenza 2009 and more than 4,735 deaths. It is also daunting that Pandemic (H1N1 ) 2009 is continuing to spread, and now many countries are not trying to contain the virus, but limiting its impact.
Here in Ireland, based on the surveillance of laboratory confirmed cases of pandemic (H1N1 ) 2009, as of October 17, some 2,192 confirmed cases have been notified. Children and young adults remain the most affected groups with 82.0 per cent of cases less than 35 years of age. In the majority of cases illness continues to be mild.
What is concerning is that 10 deaths have already occurred as a result of this flu, and it is now imperative those most at risk do not delay in receiving the vaccine.
Thankfully by next Monday all participating GPs and HSE vaccine clinics will have the vaccine, and the HSE is launching a public information campaign advising people in the at-risk groups of why, how, and where they can get the vaccine. That campaign will be necessary to hopefully alleviate much of the confusion that surrounds the flu itself and the vaccination programme. The virus is expected to worsen. We are still unaware of the full impact, and without doubt companies, schools, and families, already ailing from the economic recession, will have to put health first on the agenda.
According to the World Health Organisation past pandemics needed more than six months to spread as widely as this new swine flu virus spread in less than six weeks. And although it has proved relatively mild for most who contract the disease, the real concern is its ability to mutate and become more virulent. Last century flu pandemics occurred in 1918, 1957, and 1968, when millions of people died. Currently, there is not enough information available to predict how severe Influenza A (H1N1 ) swine flu virus will be and how long it will last.
As a result people need to prepare themselves and their families for this flu pandemic. This is important because if people become sick at the same time, it will put increased pressure on our already overburdened health service. And it is now expected that an increasing number of hospitals will cut back on non-emergency admissions as the rate of infection accelerates.
Don’t delay if you are in the at-risk category, and if not, try to take sensible precautions. We should all continue to follow the same basic public health advice - regularly wash and dry hands, stay home if sick with flu symptoms, and cover our coughs and sneezes.
Although the spread of the virus to all countries, worldwide, is considered inevitable, let’s hope that Ireland’s preparations are well placed to control what could be a virulent virus. Our health is our wealth.