The H1N1 blow-up

The frenzy around the H1N1 virus is totally uncalled for. A doctor's view on the hype surrounding the Swine flu

worried mother at a doctor's clinicDoctor, my child has sneezed twice since today morning. Should I come to you, or should I go directly with my child, to one of the government hospitals and get him tested for Swine flu?” asked one of the many mothers, who come to me regularly with their children. A few mothers told me, “Doc, though you told us not to worry about the minor cold and fever that my son has, we decided to go ahead and get him tested for Swine flu.”

A few other mothers wanted me as their doctor to certify that it was unsafe for their children to go to school, as long as the Swine flu epidemic was not controlled. Many cancelled their weekend trips for fear of the disease.

As the media headlines and television news grew bolder and bolder every day, Mumbai, and most other cities in India, went hysterical, over this unknown, unseen enemy.

The role of media during calamities

How much responsibility does the media have, in this country, in keeping the readers or viewers informed, without over dramatising events and creating panic? Almost none, it would seem.

Whether it is reporting of a natural catastrophe like an earthquake or cyclone, terrorist attacks, accidents or an epidemic, over the last few years, the print and electronic media has been guilty of going overboard, and has perhaps been instrumental in causing more harm than good. Yes, the media is our watchdog, and is very much needed to create awareness, keep the lay public informed about what might be harmful to them, and to keep rapping the Government on its knuckles, at all times.

But with severe competition, and with the need to stay one up over the competitors, the media has often become like an unbridled horse, and has succeeded in only creating a fear psychosis, in the minds of the people.

The government’s part

Part of the blame for this mass hysteria created by the Swine flu epidemic has also to be taken by the government agencies, which have been slow to react, both with propaganda and with actual measures.

In the face of such a pandemic, it is impossible to contain or treat potential patients by opening only one centre in every city, as the government initially did. This lead to long queues, overworked doctors and nurses, and the testing and drug distribution system got badly overloaded. Eventually, the government had to open more centres to cater to the needs of the common man. This could and should have been done in a better manner, with more forethought and foresight, rather than as a knee jerk response.

Figuratively speaking

It was being repeatedly told that the mortality rate from Swine flu was very low—one death for every 10000 proved cases. However, it seemed to make no perceptible difference to the psyche of the common man, who made a beeline for masks, for doctors and for the testing centres. In this country, though we are not aware, there are many conditions that kill in much larger number—malaria, typhoid, dengue, cholera, encephalitis, brain fevers, pneumonias, diarrhoea, measles, road accidents—to name a few. But all this logic went for a toss, when the media hyped the case for Swine flu.

The common man’s plight

Lastly, the blame also lies with the common man, who is willing to be misled, and is willing to believe anything that is said in the papers, any rumours that he hears, or anything shown on television. It becomes the duty of every citizen to sift all the information that the media is throwing at him or her, and to focus only on the facts.

Most people had lost trust and faith, when the media unleashed a panic wave. There was no trust in what their doctors were telling them, no trust in what the Government or the World Health Organization was saying, no trust in oneself, and no trust in God. The swine flu epidemic brought to light the complete absence or loss of trust in the common man.

The fear of disease and death was so strong that it completely destroyed most people’s logical or rational thinking, and made them incapable of thinking anything positive. To the common man, every death and suffering reported in the media was automatically extrapolated and projected on to his near and dear ones. In this panic, many went to the centres for unnecessary tests, often exposing themselves and their children, to others who may be carrying the virus. This was one situation where, except in those rare cases, the best thing to do was to sit at home if you got a cold or fever, and do nothing. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, the most difficult thing in life is to do nothing.

Doctor’s advice

Fear is a symptom, which exists only in the face of the unknown and in the face of distrust. If you are able to trust—God, existence, doctors, the health system, and more importantly your own fate—it helps a lot to tide over such crises. In fact, it is very ironical that the stress and anxiety over Swine flu could cause more bodily and mental harm, than the virus itself.

In life, you must learn to store faith and trust somewhere, precisely for such situations. If you do not have trust and faith, at least be willing to accept whatever happens, while intelligently taking all possible precautions. But neither trusting nor accepting can often lead to mental distress and unintelligent actions. Already, the health systems that test for the virus are overloaded, and it is being reported that thousands of samples collected are lying untested. Mass hysteria and panic can easily create shortages and scarcities, leading to a dangerous situation.

It is mandatory that you learn to remain calm and collected, in such situations. Otherwise, our mental and physical reactions to the event can be worse than the event itself.

P V Vaidyanathan
Dr P V Vaidyanathan, MD, DCH, is a Mumbai-based paediatrician in private practice, hobbyist writer, and author of a book on childhood stress management.


  1. Well written article.. I was in such a fix when swine flu was making rounds. I got a call from my son’s school asking us to take our kids to Kasturba hospital and get them tested for H1n1 but then isn’t this illogical as there may be people who are really infected and those who are not will combat the disease by simply going there???? God knows how many parents actually thought on these lines


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here