One Year After the Pandemic
Were There any Lessons Learnt?

Thinking allowed
When the 8.7 million population of Mexico City woke up just over a year ago to confusing news of a new virus, it sent the world on a wild nine-month roller-coaster ride of fear and frantic action!

Who remembers the H1N1 virus or Swine Flu as it was called; it might be a distant memory to many of us on the Rock, but it certainly sent the ‘colly-jitters down many peoples spine!

As we all know now the virus proved far less lethal than feared, for that we all have to be grateful. Gibraltar had some confirmed cases of the virus, but by and large the outbreak here passed over us like a sweeping Levante wind with no fatalities or anything else more sinister.

Nearly 18, 000 Died World Wide

Globally other people were not so lucky, as the pandemic killed 17, 700 people worldwide, in Mexico were the outbreak was triggered; there were 1,185 people who succumbed to this decease.

While H1N1 met the technical definition of a worldwide pandemic, the signs were obvious that it wasn't nearly as dangerous a plague as people feared. Nearly 18,000 global deaths may sound a lot, but the death toll on a ‘pandemic scenario point of view’ was lower than predicted.

However there was a lot of alarm! Health officials were scared because H1N1 presented itself differently than strains of flu that normally circulate during the winter. It seemed to hit young people the hardest, whereas normal flues typically hit the elderly. Microbiologists couldn't help but think and compare this strain with the devastating 1918 pandemic influenza that turned the lungs of healthy young people into mashed potato.

In the end, H1N1 was nothing like the 1918 outbreak, so the question being asked today by governments all over the place and the World Health Organization is DID WE OVERREACT in spending money that could have been spent elsewhere.

The allegation directed at health officials, is that they ‘cried wolf in potentially raising a false alarm’ this in a sense is worrisome, because it means many people might ignore warnings about the next pandemic (if there is one god forbid) and decline to be vaccinated.

Communication was an Important Factor

One of the biggest issues that health services faced including our own GHA was communicating messages to the public, particularly in trying to keep policies and messages to the public up to date, whilst knowledge of experts themselves evolved, it was being fed to government health agencies around the world, all this was a massive exercise and necessary in order to forewarn the public to expect that policies and messages would change as the data and the situation changed.

It is now known however that long before the H1N1 vaccine became available, data began to show that children and young adults were less at risk from the pandemic than older people, though kids were still more at risk from the pandemic than from the average seasonal flu.

In fact this new information was not really stressed enough not only by the GHA here but in other places. Much of the messages the public received strongly implied that children and young adults were more at risk than older people. Although having said all of that, it is highly likely that the public would have wished the priorities to remain the same despite the new data. Most surveys conducted showed a strong desire to protect children and young people first!!

The failure to call the evolving pandemic “mild” didn’t mislead people about its mildness. People figured out without much help from health officials that the pandemic was mild anyway. But many ended up confused and even skeptical about why officials weren’t saying so. This skepticism was far greater in Europe, where some sections of the European press and parliamentarians accused the World Health Organisation of promulgating a “fake pandemic.”

Locally the last I heard a total of 115 laboratory confirmed cases of Swine Flu were registered in Gibraltar. The number of swine flu vaccines administered in last November was 1,732, which almost halved in December - 989 - and just 94 in January 2010, which brought the total number of local vaccinations to 2,880.

Looking at these local Vaccine figures you could say, that people on the rock did not take the pandemic that seriously as well either, but as I said Gibraltar was not alone there.

Personally I believe that locally the whole Pandemic Swine Flu issue was handled in a competent and professional manner, officials here relied on the advice from experts in the United Kingdom and on general world health alerts.

However I was somewhat surprised at the poor vaccine inoculation percentages, the many locals who side stepped the opportunity to immunise themselves and families during the height of this world health alert, I believe ‘this area alone’ requires further thought and planning for the future, particularly in the event of a real old nasty grim type reaper Pandemic descending down on us in the future, although I hope such a situation never arises, but Pandemics are landmarks, they happen when you least expect them and are recorded in the annals of world historical events!!

However the public’s poor vaccine turn out issue is important and must remain a concern and a liability with health officials everywhere. As experts look ahead to future public health threats, Officials must consider that if they are unwilling to call a mild flu virus mild as was the cases with the swine flu outbreak, they lose some of their ability to warn the public convincingly that a mild flu virus can turn severe at any point.

It is these authorities that must make the public understand that what could have happened would have been devastating for mankind, we were fortunate.

On the other hand Society in general should thank their lucky stars and also understand themselves that what happened with the swine flu outbreak was a huge relief and a fortunate anticlimax.

However it doesn’t mean that next time, ifthere is next time, that a World Pandemic Will be as Kind to us as Swine Flu Was!