We hear extensively about swine flu in the media, but what is the actual extent of its effects? Alan Coughlan gives a personal account of the disease.
The great swine flu epidemic of 1918 began in a benign state. There was no fear of something that in retrospect could look like a modern-day plague, but viruses can become lethal seemingly overnight.
As Bill Bryson noted, “the First World War killed 21 million people in four years; swine flu did the same in its first four months”. On the face of it, this disease should scare every one of us into quarantine. As eccentric a concept as this might sound, it was and for many, still is the only rational reaction to a new outbreak of swine flu.
The majority of flu strains are not lethal. They can cause hell for the elderly and the very young, but for the most part can be defeated by the average immune system. While we have been told up to this point that we should be in fear of a new epidemic, so far it has not reared its ugly head in a lethal form.
This author, over the Christmas holidays, had the very unfortunate turn of luck to contract swine flu. I visited my GP but as a rational lover of science, did not go looking for an antibiotic as a ‘virus’ such as influenza is not ‘alive’ and thus cannot be killed.
The symptoms which I must admit I had read about this time last year when we were all in fear of dying from this disease were something I did not really expect. As a twelve year old, I suffered a bad case of the flu. A high fever accompanied with regular bouts of vomiting was the call of about two weeks. Nothing else could be done except sleep.
From this point on in my life when people might be missing from school, work or college for two or three days and their excuse would be: “I had the flu,” I would laugh as I knew just how influenza could make a person feel. You would want for nothing, except relief. It was not like having a tummy ache as a kid. Sleep was the only release.
So when on this St Stephen’s Day I felt a bit of a headache when I awoke, I put it down to the drinking I had done on Christmas Day. By seven o’clock though, I thought the ‘hangover’ was too much and so went for a lie down. I remained off my feet for thirteen days.
On December 27th, I awoke with a headache of the kind I have never experienced. If I could articulate it in language, I would say the front portion of my head, over my right eye, taking up one quarter of the top of my cranium, felt like it was being squeezed in a vice. This pain lasted for a full day, interspersed with my very pathetic whimpering noises.
Ever the soldier, I refused to visit the doctor and took to the bed, hoping that rest would fix me. On the second day, I limped downstairs in pyjamas and turned on the television. It was at this point that I noticed a pain centred completely on my eyeballs. The only way it could be described is as a film of heat and points of pressure spread over the entire eye. No matter what way I turned, my eye hurt.
It became almost a game, but not a fun one, where I would try to look at something and see just how sore it would be. It became what seemed a cruel trick by the disease, as only my right eye suffered, but eyes can’t work independently so I felt blind. I could find my way from bed to bathroom, but that was it. Conversations or interactions with people were impossible. I was listless to a level of coma where I could not muster strength to interact. All I wanted was sleep and that was hard to find.
At this point, I needed nothing but bed rest and given that it was Christmas and doctors would be hard to come by, I sought solace in Lemsip and Solpadeine. I was lucky to have a mother who was immune to all of my coughing and kept me in fresh T-shirts as an intense fever caused more sweating than I care to remember.
There were only two nights of hell in this regard, but both included getting out of bed four times dripping wet and having to get new sheets and clothes. While awake, I was too hot to wrap up, but shivering too much to not be covered. Duvet on or off, I would only get a few minutes of peace before a change was required. And with crooked eyes and a weak body, I was not able for much.
After this point, when it felt safe enough to walk downstairs, I started to get back to normal slowly. New Year’s Eve was spent playing Scrabble with a newly influenza-infected mother as we both complained about our eye pain, but in retrospect I can still smile about a good Christmas.
Obviously this flu was not of the kind that kills, but from what the World Health Organisation tells us, is liable to mutate into a more lethal form. From my own point of view, it was a killer and at the end, I was a stone lighter on January 2nd compared with Christmas Day. The flu, even in its regular form, has intense power.
With the number of Irish infections only supposedly peaking this week, it cannot be known what is to come. Viruses are adaptable and hardy in a way that is almost unimaginable. Being technically un-alive, they require no sustenance, just a stable environment to remain in existence until they can infect another organism.