Who's up for a Swine Flu Party?

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The story making the rounds these days is that swine flu parties "“ flu flings "“ are all the rage here in Merry Olde. Now, I've been to the odd garden party and birthday party, even a "fancy dress" party, but I have not yet been invited to a swine flu party (at least, not intentionally).

The swine flu party has its origins in those chickenpox parties of yore, when parents hoping to get the pox out of the way early would push their children toward the first child to fall ill, the idea being that their child would then develop immunity to the illness. Newspapers the world over, especially here in England, are urging people to use their common sense and to stay away from swine flu parties, on the grounds that contracting the flu in general is a bad idea and doing in such a potentially risky way is even worse.

But the likelihood of people actually hosting these parties is pretty low "“ no one has been able to produce solid evidence that such events have occurred and no newspapers have been able to find a parent willing to say, "Yes, I intentionally infected my child with swine flu "“ what?" (If, however, these parties invited celebrities who've had the flu, like Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, for example, who recovered from his bout with the swine flu just in time for the Leicester Square premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, they may stand a better chance of actually being the wild success news media seems to fear they are.)

The stories surrounding the swine flu parties, then, can fall into the category that much reporting around the pandemic has: Well-intentioned fear mongering with a side of over-earnest freaking out.

Don't get me wrong, we are now in the stage where we have friends who've come down with the swine flu, where a summer cold can look suspiciously porcine, where we're armed with hand sanitizer for every trip out of the door. The threat of flu cannot be underestimated "“ but nor should it be overblown, a talent that the British press has in spades. The British press, in general, tends towards a more breathless, sensational, even combative form of reporting than we're used to in the States "“ headlines shrieking about the number of British deaths from the illness, the tragically young age of those who have died, and the coming apocalypse are so common they seem to blend in with the scenery. (And it's historical: check out The Times' archives of reporting on past flu epidemics.)

Swine-Flu

Unrelated photo taken by mental_floss editor Jason English on a trip to his local zoo.

The major story "“ admittedly reported with somewhat less morbid fascination than other swine flu stories had been "“ of a few weeks ago posited the worst-case number of people in Britain who could die from the swine flu at 65,000, a calculation based on a 0.35 percent mortality rate, and that the NHS is preparing for accordingly. Many stories also failed to mention that on average, 6,000 Britons die each year from the regular flu, though that number can spike "“ in the 1999 to 2000 flu season, around 21,000 died from the flu. And at the time, the swine flu death toll was around 30, where it has remained in the month since.

This reporting was also taking place around the same time that the BBC put out a TV docu-drama called The Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen, which seemed to take a similar maudlin tone, albeit clothed in historical reporting, to that horrifying nuclear fall-out miniseries from the "˜80s, The Day After. Reporting about the movie also noted that advisors to the film said that the Spanish flu bore striking similarities to the current swine flu pandemic. As timely as I'm sure those BBC execs were thinking, was it really a good idea?

While reporting on the swine flu has largely quieted down, especially as civilization continues to tick along, the big story this week is that the vaccine itself might actually be more lethal than the disease. This was the same problem that arose during the 1976 outbreak of swine flu, which we discussed last spring. Under headlines like "Death linked to swine flu vaccine," papers have been reporting that health officials are warning that the current swine flu vaccine may share similarities with the 1976 vaccine, which resulted in more than 25 deaths from the onset of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neurological disease. All well and good, just adding another chunk of wood on the fear-mongering pyre, and reinforced by the article placed next to it: A lengthy editorial by a woman who had the swine flu, which was less a flu it seems, and more a visit to the fifth ring of Dante's Inferno.

eyes-wide-shutIn any case, speaking of parties "“ a country party for some well-heeled European types may have inadvertently become a swine flu fest a few weekends ago when, at the stroke of midnight, guests doffed their clothes and began earnestly reenacting that scene from Eyes Wide Shut. (You know the one.) The owner of the old English manor where the party took place said he was more than a little shocked by the whole thing and that attempts to stop the guests met with failure. The bonking wrapped up at around 3:30 a.m., with some guests retiring to their rooms and others leaving for the nearby TravelLodge.

Now that's a swine flu party.

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August 19, 2009 - 6:04am
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