Czech authorities noted the country’s first case of swine flu at the end of May. By mid-July there were 21 infections; in the first week of August there were 160. Authorities so far do not have enough vaccine, and health experts predict a worst-case scenario of 3 million Czechs contracting the flu. Parasitologist Jaroslav Flégr of the Charles University Faculty of Science says these warnings need to be taken seriously.
Are the warnings about swine flu only media sensationalism?
I have to say that I am somewhat worried. The swine flu virus alone is not very dangerous. The problem lies in how easily it spreads. That is when so-called superinfections can take place.
What does that mean?
The more infected people, the higher the probability that any one individual will get infected from a number of people at the same time — visiting a theatre, for example, or anywhere there are a lot of people all together. You can then contract a number of strains of the flu at the same time.
What is so bad about that?
The various strains will compete with each other, and the more aggressive ones win. With fewer infected people, the strains that win are the ones that do not work the carrier too hard and allow him to run around and infect more people. The strain can thus spread successfully. As soon as there are more infected people, the ones that multiply the fastest win — even if they need to destroy the host organism to do so. Flu viruses, including swine flu, mutate quickly and create “worse” and “less worse” strains. When there are more sick people, the worse ones win unfortunately.
Many doctors warn that the worst possibility would be swine flu and bird flu combining. The first one spreads fast while the second one kills effectively. Six out of every 10 infected would then die.
I do not want to speculate, but I don’t think this is the main danger. I think we should worry more about superinfections. I am absolutely serious about this. When the Czech Republic worried about bird flu, I thought it was kind of funny because the chance of catching bird flu is very small. With swine flu, all the fun is over. We also need to take into account that swine flu has not been spreading until recently, so people have no anti-bodies against it.
That sounds catastrophic. What should we expect then?
It does not mean that everyone should fear for their lives. A man in the Czech Republic is more likely to die of lung cancer caused by smoking than from swine flu. However, the number of people who will contract the virus at the same time might be so significant that the economic functioning of the state will be paralysed. Then there is also the ethical level. The probability of you and me both dying of the flu is very low, but the overall number of people who will die is definitely not negligible. If we have a way of protecting people from the disease and its consequences, we should definitely try to do so.
The Czech Republic plans to buy enough vaccine for 2.5 million people. Half a million of these are people necessary for the running of the country, such as doctors and police. The rest will be divided among people already in poor health. It is not enough to stop the disease from spreading, though. What more can be done?
Mass events should be restricted or outright banned in autumn when the main wave of flu is coming so that a large number of people do not meet at one place. The worst of all are rooms with air conditioning, where the different viruses mix together in the circulating air. The virus is currently spreading around the southern hemisphere, and we don’t know if it will be the more aggressive forms that arrive here in the autumn. That is why it is important to take the whole situation seriously. It is good to note that it will be dangerous in hospitals. A large number of independently infected people in one spot is an ideal environment for the virus competition in which the most aggressive ones win.
This is not a very optimistic forecast for those who will be hospitalised in autumn.
It is possible, though, to get ready for the infection. I recommend getting a lot of vitamins, eating healthy food, taking plenty of fresh air and giving up smoking. In other words, everything we know we should do but haven’t found a good motivation for.
Have you already started?
I am leaving for the ocean soon. I would recommend it for those living in polluted areas: Go to the sea or to the mountains. Now is the best time to get better.