Mark Jadav: My experience of catching swine flu

After reading my colleagues’ comments on the discussion fora of the harmfulness of playing our ace too soon, I bear the shame of being one of those low-risk (fairly) fit, (relatively) young people with a mild self-limiting viral illness who is consuming the precious stocks of Tamiflu and probably helping develop the resistant strains which will eventually create a true disaster.

What can I say? I didn’t really mean to cause any harm. That is, I excused myself from work at the first peak of pyrexia above 38 degrees and went home to protect my fellow staff and patients. I contacted my GP, or rather one of his partners as he himself was undoubtedly busy on the other line to another flu enquirer.

I wanted a swab as I was uncertain that I had flu, having no respiratory symptoms, only a headache earlier that morning and now myalgia, fatigue, vague abdominal discomfort and pyrexia. I was in particular concerned that my pregnant wife, my 4 year old son and his asthmatic older brother were all at a higher risk of complications if they contracted flu from me. If the test was positive, I would want them to be considered for prophylaxis. We didn’t live in an area of established community transmission and I was more likely to have contracted it at work in the Emergency Department. No, I didn’t want treatment as I was likely to cope fine with the disease. Neither of us knew if it would reduce my infectivity.

Alas, the guidance emailed to the surgery just 4 days before stated clearly that prophylaxis was no longer given, and it didn’t seem to make any special case for high risk groups. Testing was also only recommended at the GP’s discretion and as she said, “If we had to gown, glove up and travel out to everyone that had possible flu to take swabs….” The implication was clear.

She would however, offer Tamiflu. It would slightly reduce my chances of hospital admission and duration of illness. I repeated that I didn’t want it, my concern was for my family; she countered that we would assume I had swine flu and should be treated. We iterated. By now I had taken 12 minutes of her time, more than she could afford during a busy morning surgery, and I sensed we could go no further. I felt guilty about having recklessly contracted this disease, leaving my work colleagues to struggle on an already short-staffed shift, putting my family at risk and now wasting the time and questioning the decision of my primary care physician. I was also longing to lay my aching head on the pillow in sleep. I accepted the offer and confirmed that my ‘flu friend’ would shortly be out to pick up the voucher for transport to the dispensing hospital.

My wife made the trip. The reception staff barked fearfully that she shouldn’t be there, obviously concerned that she had endangered their safety through her spousal proximity to a confirmed case of this deadly disease: the voucher had already been aseptically faxed to the dispensary. The front-of-house dispensary staff were fortunately more measured in their approach, although the porter who delivered the small box was quick to escape when he saw that there was a potential viral vector in the vicinity of the drop point.

So here I am, 24 hours later, 3 doses of antivirals at work and despite ongoing pyrexia, feeling somewhat better. I’m not going to be allowed back to work for a week, my first sick leave for 10 years. Fortunately, our community’s response has been less hysterical than imagined. Friends have telephoned and offered support, my children have not been ostracised from school, clubs or friends’ houses (although my 8 year old wouldn’t attend the end of term choir party without me). My younger lad has made two beautiful ‘get betur’ cards and both boys are missing me, having to make do with talking from the other side of the bedroom door.

My wife has moved into the next room but is nevertheless being wonderfully attentive. Despite trying to be undemanding and easy to please, I know that I cannot allow such dependence to continue much longer, but how long will it be before I dare risk breaching the bounds of my containment? Will I still be infectious if I feel well tomorrow? Or will my symptoms linger longer than the expected duration of my ‘viral shedding’? I suspect that my youngest’s 5th birthday party on day 6 of my illness will be a safe venue to attend, but will the parents of his playmates come to the same conclusion? Ah, perhaps this is why the NHS website is called “Choices”.