AH1NI: Unnecessary Controversy

By TP Saran

Some fuss has been raised about a statement made by the Minister of Health, Mrs Maya Hanoomanjee. It is reported that, apparently, she declared on the radio that there was no case of AH1N1 influenza at all. Either there has been misreporting, or it may have been a slip of the tongue – a pardonable human error – on her part.

We learn from reliable sources that she has been properly briefed (perhaps even informed the Cabinet) on the situation regarding cases of respiratory infection and the AH1N1, namely that with the advent of winter comes the influenzal season too. This means that the number of cases of the common cold – or influenza – a condition caused by a group called the influenza viruses is bound to increase: as it has indeed done in the dispensaries and hospitals. Amongst these cases there have naturally been some of AH1N1 influenza — as was to be expected. We are informed that doctors were not specifically looking or testing for that virus because, for all practical purposes, it is now circulating freely in the community all over the world, just like all the influenza viruses.

The practical significance of this information is that anyone can potentially be infected by any of the influenza viruses, including AH1N1. So what’s the big deal? The people who have been raking up muck don’t even bother to read what the very media they are part of has to say. If they had cared to read Le Mauricien of Saturday last, they would have had the answers to all the stupid and almost infantile questions they have been pestering the Minister about.

That article, citing high-level sources in the MOH, makes it clear that we have passed over the peak of what they call upper respiratory infections, that the situation was under control in the sense that the health services were able to cope with the numbers, that the majority of cases were mild and that only a small percentage of the total was actually of AH1N1 origin. And the same article highlighted that tests for AH1N1 were being done only for purposes of ‘epidemiological surveillance’ (whatever that means, trust doctors for these complicated words!) because the country had to report to WHO, and in specific cases where treating doctors made the request for reasons they judged necessary.

I listened to the answers given by Mrs Hanoomanjee to reporters and that were broadcast on Wednesday afternoon. She confirmed exactly the contents of the article cited above. She pointed out that only about 2% of the total number of upper respiratory infection cases were likely to be AH1N1, and invited those asking the questions to read the communiqué that MOH had released and that contained valuable advice about precautions to take, and that people should follow the advice.

I am sure that they would have read it and understood perfectly well everything – but they were not after the truth of the situation: they were after sensation, and to her credit, they did not get it from her. What she spoke was factual, and correct. I do not hold any brief for any minister, but I must concede in this particular instance that Mrs Hanoomanjee was straightforward, concise, and precise in her replies which left no doubt about the fact that everything was being managed well and there was no need for any alarm.

The irony of it is that they cornered her not to ask about the UNFPA workshop she had inaugurated – which seemed to be of no consequence or relevance to them – but about something, which worldwide no longer is making news.

There is so much information available on the internet now – any sixth grader with a minimum of computer literacy can go to the WHO website and so many other sources to be reliably informed about the situation concerning AH1N1. If the reporters had bothered to do so instead of pouncing on the Minister, they would have got the true picture about AH1N1. Knowing reporters, I am sure that they scout and browse the internet – but they likely have other ideas in mind when they decide to focus on what is no longer an event. As a doctor we met remarked, shrugging his shoulders, ‘AH1N1 infection? So what! You are bound to have some cases, just like influenza cases. So what do I do? Clap my hands, shout from the rooftop? Come on man, let’s talk about something else!’ Like Germany versus Spain for example…

So let’s come down to earth, and thank our stars that there has been no panic at all, despite the unrelenting efforts of some jaundiced minds to create a situation of mass hysteria. It will be remembered that this happened last year, when the official frenzy of wild activity involving inappropriate exposure to the media for weeks together heightened tension among the population and caused an overflow at hospitals. And vulture-like, reporters zoomed in to blow up the situation.

Thank goodness for the measured and balanced approach of the new dispensation that we are currently witnessing.

* Published in print edition on 9 July 2010

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