Claudine Cassar | Sunday, 23 August 2009
Bookmark and Share

Don’t let the hysteria on swine flu cramp your style

This week the news broke that an unfortunate old lady with a chronic heart and respiratory condition had passed away due to complications from swine flu. Within minutes of the news, the hysteria commenced.
Some people implored the rest of the population to be on the alert. According to them, we should all stay at home, avoid crowded areas (mass, football games, supermarkets) and douse ourselves in disinfectant at regular intervals. They stated that anyone who had cold-like symptoms should not be allowed to leave the house – in some cases people were even of the opinion that all those related to anyone with a sniffle should be quarantined with them.
A number of concerned parents launched a plea to keep schools shut until the swine flu scare is over. This request quickly morphed into a statement of fact – indeed, schools will all stay closed till January 2010 (and possibly even longer, if we are still sneezing away). This fact took a life of its own, until ultimately both the Education Ministry and the Malta Union of Teachers had to issue statements to inform the public that schools would in fact be opening at the end of the summer holidays as originally scheduled.
Others had various conspiracy theories, and opined that the health department was faking the figures – according to them 20,000 people in Malta have swine flu. It seems that it did not occur to them that if that were the case, then one death in 20,000 would be a mortality rate of 0.005% – hardly something to cause all this drama about.
To get this into perspective I looked up mortality rates for other common diseases and conditions. Heart disease, for example, kills about one out of 50 people per year in the United States (26% of deaths in America each year). Cancer, on the other hand, is the cause of approximately 23% of America’s yearly death toll, killing 559,888 people in 2006.
This is a pandemic, others shouted, a pandemic! But what is a pandemic exactly? An “epidemic that is geographically widespread; occurring throughout a region or even throughout the world”. The word pandemic, scary though it may sound, does not mean that the disease is a particularly deadly one – it just means that the disease is geographically widespread.
The fact is that swine flu is simply a very infectious type of flu. People sneeze and cough and you get it from them – just as you catch influenza and the common cold. It is not a particularly virulent virus – lots of people have probably caught H1N1 and not even realised it.
It is true that the winter months will probably lead to an increase in cases. However vaccines have been developed and will be available as from September, so that should help keep things under control.
The requests for house arrest for people who are caught sneezing and for schools to close down might be amusing at first glance. However if we are not careful things could get out of hand – we already had a case where overzealous hotel staff refused to serve food and drinks to a sniffly tourist. All we need now is shopkeepers refusing to sell you goods if they catch you with a tissue, or parents keeping their kids at home from school for months on end in order to “save” them from the swine flu.
It is clear that this hysteria needs to be brought under control. I for one have no intention of letting swine flu cramp my style.

21 years ago Kenneth Ireland was found guilty of the rape and murder of a 30-year-old mother of four. The man always insisted that he was innocent and a team of lawyers agreed to help him. Technology has improved greatly since the 80s and DNA testing on samples taken from the crime scene proved that Ireland was not the rapist/killer.
Ireland is now 39 years old, and has been imprisoned since he was 18. “I feel amazing, it feels amazing. It’s been a long time coming and I’ve just got to breathe now,” Ireland said this week when prosecutors dropped all charges against him and he walked out of the court a free man.
It is not the first time that we have heard of such miscarriages of justice. For example in 1989 James Tillman was found guilty of raping and kidnapping a 26-year-old victim. The victim identified him – however he always maintained his innocence. The Connecticut Innocence Project (the same team of attorneys who helped Kenneth Ireland) took on the case, and pressured for advanced DNA testing on the multiple semen samples taken from the victim’s clothing.
The samples were all shown to originate from the same source – however that source was not James Tillman. In July 2004 all charges against Tillman were dropped and he was fully exonerated – after spending more than 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
These cases happened in the United States, but these men were lucky. They were not executed and lived to fight to prove their innocence. The message that emerges from these stories is clear. Miscarriages of justice do occur, and more frequently than we think.
Only five nations in the world still have the death penalty – Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and the United States. It really is about time that the United States does something to remove itself from this list of shame.


Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download MaltaToday Sunday issue front page in pdf file format

All the interviews from Reporter on MaltaToday's YouTube channel.


Conduct unbecoming


Ira comes of age


Saviour Balzan
The reshuffle conversation

Raphael Vassallo:
Bile and prejudice

Evarist Bartolo
Had enough of power cuts? Blame this government

Claudine Cassar
Don’t let the hysteria on swine flu cramp your style

David Friggieri
Letter from Cuba: Propaganda

Martin Scicluna
An enlightened mind finally shines through

Harry Vassallo
Renzo Piano’s revenge



Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email