Monday, 20 July 2009

Responding to swine flu

This week I’ve been back in to the usual routine of working as a GP in Leeds and for the BMA in London. Many have asked me whether I was going to have time off work whilst I was Vice-President and they’ve been surprised when I’ve said that I would be carrying on working as normal throughout the year. For me at least, one of the fundamentally important aspects of the position of Vice-President of the Methodist Conference is that it can be fulfilled by a lay person who also continues with their lay ministry. It is not either or but should be both.

My routine week includes Monday, Tuesday and Friday in the practice in Leeds and Wednesday and Thursday working in London where I’m deputy chair of the BMA’s general practitioner committee. I also work for Leeds Local Medical Committee which represents all GPs in the area and this means regular meetings with health care managers in the city.

The priority in all 3 jobs this week has been, of course, how we respond to the growing epidemic of swine flu. Unlike many parts of the country where there has been a large and rapidly increasing number of cases, West Yorkshire had not been particularly hit by the epidemic so far. However on Tuesday it finally arrived with startling effect. It was the day the news headlines focused on the death of a healthy six year old girl in London and a GP in Luton, and so when parents received letters home from the local primary school informing them that there had been 2 confirmed cases in the school they were understandably anxious. However it was clear the virus had arrived in our community as both children and adults alike were suddenly developing flu-like symptoms. Our phone lines lit up with patients seeking advice or support and we haven’t stopped since, taking 50 flu related calls on Friday alone.

I’ve been working with others both nationally and locally for the last 2-3 years on plans for a flu pandemic. Pandemics come with a fairly regular pattern and we’ve been expecting one for a few years. The pattern is often for an early spike during the summer and then a major impact during the autumn and winter so we may only be at the early stages of this current pandemic. In any planning it is important to prepare for the worst case scenario which unfortunately means that when the media learn about the plans they can give an alarmist spin to them which is not that helpful when we want to reassure the population that plans are in fact in place.

There are though for Christians many ethical aspects to a flu pandemic that we should consider. In Britain we have a well developed health service, and enough money and forethought to buy large amounts of anti-viral medication and vaccine. This though means there is less or even none for those with less well developed plans or limited resources. Yet again the rich developed world will be able to protect its population at the expense of the poorer developing world.

At the moment the swine flu virus seems fairly innocuous, causing mild symptoms for the majority, but if it is caught by millions of people in Britain there is bound to be a large number of people for whom the illness will be a lot more severe, and sadly for some have fatal consequences. That happens every year with seasonal flu but is not deemed newsworthy. May be that is because seasonal flu has the biggest impact on elderly people or those with other serious health problems, whilst pandemic flu tends to affect the young with no previous immunity to flu.

The current media reporting has only become alarmist when otherwise healthy people have died from swine flu. Other deaths are couched with the phrase that they had other underlying health problems. Of course this explains why they have had a more serious illness as their immune system is already compromised, but the implication can be that people already with illness and disability are somehow less worthy than those without. As Christians we need to challenge this assumption for all are equally precious in God’s sight.

This also leads us to other ethical questions. For instance if our hospitals struggle to accommodate all those who would normally get specialist care, how do we prioritise those who should be admitted to hospital and who should be denied such care? Should we treat the young at the expense of the old, should we treat those at risk with other illnesses in preference to the previously healthy? These are difficult questions that we are not used to facing in a country where, no matter how much we might complain about it, we have a health service that can and does treat everyone and turns no one away.

We also need to step up to the mark with our pastoral support. Many people with flu will need support not just in getting medication from anti-viral distribution centres, but also with basic help and simple every day tasks. They also need to know that they are not alone and that their local church is there to help as best as it is able. There is no better time to love your neighbour than during a flu pandemic.

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