Are swine flu parties an urban myth?

Tom NolanSwine flu parties are the hottest ticket in town. Everyone’s been talking about them yet no-one seems to know anyone who’s been to one. Peter Flegg, a physician in Blackpool, is suspicious.

It would appear the swine flu “parties” that the press have been in a lather about recently exist only in their fevered imaginations. It is clear that some elements of the media, desperate for a unique slant on the problem to make them stand out among the wall-to-wall reporting on swine flu, have gullibly swallowed and promoted the idea that these are taking place.

The idea of “pig flu parties” was first floated over two months ago, only to rear its snout once more at the end of June. The BBC was responding (over-reacting?) to information from Justine Roberts, from the Internet forum Mumsnet. However, rather than having evidence of any parties having taken place or being organised, it was clear that the parties were just a “proof of concept” idea floated for debate on the Mumsnet forum.

The rapid response continues in a similar way before ending in a nice swipe at science journalists (note the inverted-commas).

…so far there is absolutely no evidence that parties are being organised to deliberately expose children. Once again, our nation’s “science” journalists have spectacularly misfired with their “incisive” and “accurate” reporting.

So is anyone willing to come forward and say that they’ve actually been to a ‘pig flu party’? A prize of a random selection of textbooks scrounged from around the office will go to anyone who can convince me (and Peter Flegg) that they exist.

Similarities and madcap advice from 1918

All this talk of parties is a pleasant distraction, but let’s face facts: this pandemic is going to be as bad as Spanish Flu in 1918 (or so they say). In some ways it already is. Dean Jenkins, editor-in-chief of BMJ Case Reports has written a blog that points out some worrying similarities. He’s in search of the earliest case report of the 1918 pandemic and has found some eerily familiar words in the BMJ archive.

“We cannot help feeling that in the absence of any bacteriological proof, the extreme low mortality or its practical absence, and the possibility that the disease is gastro-intestinal influenza, render alarmist suggestions premature”

So it seems to have started as a relatively mild illness with gastro-intestinal symptoms. What other similarities are there? A case series from July 1918 of 50 patients in an RAF hospital has this:

In default of isolation which is wholly impracticable, no satisfactory prophylaxis is available.

It’s uncanny! One area where the two pandemics do seem to differ though is advice on treatment. In 2009 it’s all about the antivirals. Let’s hear what ridiculous treatments they had back then:

Bed rest on a milk diet is essential. Fluids in the form of imperial drink (that’s water, lemon, sugar and cream of tartar to you and me) should be taken in abundance; not less than four or five pints daily.

During convalescence the best diet is eggs, fish, and chicken, with an ample allowance of fresh vegetables and fruit.

See how far we’ve come.

Tom Nolan is the clinical community editor of doc2doc, the BMJ’s professional networking community.