I caught influenza in Canada late last year, most likely H1N1, which raged through the northern hemisphere flu season, with an outbreak in Calgary, the city we were closest to. H1N1 is swine flu, a reassortment of bird, human and pig flu viruses first identified in Mexico in 2009. It’s called Mexican flu in some places (not Mexico) and pig flu in others (not pig farms). It’s recently hit Queensland, a couple of months early for our season, which looks like it’s going to bring home the bacon if you happen to be a flu virus. Already there are three times as many intensive care admissions as last year at this time, confirmed cases are more than twice the five-year average, and H1N1 is the culprit in 90 per cent of cases where the virus could be subtyped.
H1N1’s ancestors gave us the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (which actually started in France), a perfect storm of virus, population and environment that killed three to five per cent of the world’s population, more than World War I. Other flu viruses are higher risk to the young, the old and the unwell, but H1N1 is also risky for the well. The World Health Organisation declared a pandemic when swine flu started spreading quickly in 2009, spooked by the pig’s trajectory, but the initial dire predictions turned out to be hogwash. I’m not saying they were telling porkies, and I don’t believe snouts were in the trough, as some claimed. There’s always someone blamed in these situations (big pharma or pig farmers, who knows?), and unintentionally, the experts may have hammed it up a little in the initial stages. They couldn’t know how sick people would get. Swine flu was mild, mostly. This wasn’t the biggie, not the whole hog. What a relief.
Given all this, if you were going to get a flu, H1N1 would be the one you’d want, right? Hah! No one could describe what I had in Canada as mild. I’d never had flu vaccines (fear of needles) and I’d caught influenza before. It was unpleasant enough to give me pause for thought about vaccination. But H1N1 was another order of illness altogether.
My son got sick first. He vomited all night. Nothing would reduce his fever. In the hours before dawn, his body was so weak I had to hold him upright so he wouldn’t choke on the bright green bile he was spewing. I watched his thin, pale frame, his birdwing shoulder blades, and felt afraid. By nightfall, we both had the rocketing fevers, aches and pains, and that dry cough. I couldn’t stand most food. My friend Fumie left noodles, broth and apples on our doorstep and we lived on those. We stayed away from folk. I can’t remember a time I’ve been sicker, and for weeks. Afterwards, I was berated by one health care worker mother because we hadn’t been vaccinated before leaving Australia. I explained that it never occurred to me (carefully omitting the needle thing). I said we isolated ourselves (Doesn’t that sound responsible?). She kept berating. I’ve found vaccination is one of those issues. It turns us into people I’d rather we weren’t. Both pro and anti folk quickly become self-righteous in the face of other people’s misery.
When I found out we’d likely had swine flu, I thought it must be like new pork, a leaner, meaner variation of the “mild” 2009 flu. But it’s the same swine, and it’s no pussycat, set to dog Australia’s 2014 season. Few of us have immunity, so more will get sick. In the end, I trust doctors, who’ve done all that training, in the same way I trust pilots. Occasionally, like pilots, they get it wrong, and the fact we’re well-informed health consumers who understand the risks we take – if we vaccinate and if we don’t – is all to the good. My needle phobia notwithstanding, you can’t sew a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so I’m off to Doctor Tig this week to ask if Canadian pigs can fly south, mutating en route enough to give me the flu again. If the answer’s yes and the vaccine protects, I’ll be happy as the proverbial in mud to have a needle instead.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 12 April 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!