Telling us porkies about swine flu

HOW come it’s not called Mexican flu?

We weren’t so sensitive in 1918, when we called it Spanish flu, or in 1957 when we called Asian flu.

But this is 2009 and it’s now embarrassing to blame a disease on a nation, especially when we always seem to pick ones with brown eyes and dark skin. Places where the people are swarthy, if you like.

The dictionary says “swarthy” means dark complexioned. That’s it, pure and simple. There’s nothing in there about cutting your throat or your wife running off with one of them and living in a horse-drawn caravan.

But somehow it’s hard not to saddle this simple adjective with all kinds of dodgy connotations, like when your wife says you’re “robust”, which means “strong in constitution” and not “fat” at all.

I’m sure that, politically, the more liberal among us would be delighted if we could have a British flu or a Swedish flu, just to prove that we weren’t racist at all, and that blue-eyed fair-haired people were just as diseased as more… swarthy races.

But pigs will do. You can blame anything on a pig. It beats me how they got to be at the end of the food chain when it comes to admiration and respect. I like pigs. I used to keep a couple, named Chop and Crackling, which was what they became, eventually. They were comical (while they lived) and clean in their habits. I’m sure if pigs are spreading flu it’s because they weren’t properly looked after. Could that be the fault of people, I wonder? Swarthy people, even? But let’s not go there.

Let’s just accept the fact that the swine have given us swine flu. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicted recently that we were due for another flu pandemic and they might have been proved right. Apparently we get about three every 100 years. We had them in 1888, 1918, 1957/8 and now Ñ possibly Ñ in 2009.

The moral of this story seems to be to go and live on the moon in the latter half of any decade, and especially to avoid years that end with an 8.

But I guess we should be serious. WHO (and by the way, and completely off the point, have you noticed how hard it’s to not think of the World Health Organisation as Dr WHO?) says that the previous flu pandemics killed tens of millions of people.

I’m not given to bouts of hysteria, but it seems reasonable to be slightly panicky, considering that back in 1888, 1918 and even 1958 people travelled the world like moles in concrete. Most people coming to Australia, sailed. In ships. In took them four weeks. If word got out that they were carrying a deadly flu virus it was always possible to sink them in international waters (maybe that’s what’s really happening to boatpeople).

Even the trains travelled only slightly faster than a trike … and yet pandemics swept the globe in a year, give or take a month or two.

How much more likely is it now, when you can have your breakfast in Queensland, your lunch in Singapore and your luggage in Bombay before the day is over? There’s even a suspected case in South Korea, for heaven’s sake! What have Mexicans and South Koreans got in common, apart from a certain swarthiness, that is? (And now, possibly, swine flu).

And there’s another thing Ñ apparently this flu is worse than the avian flu of recent years (which, incidentally, has only affected 421 people and killed 257 in the past six years.

And one of the things that makes swine flu worse is that it’s easily spread from human to human, unlike avian flu.

But what about from humans to swine! What then? There’s a whole raft of questions that need answering, and answering fast: Will it spread to pigs around the world? Will they call it human flu? Will bacon be off the breakfast menu? And … am I being flippant about a very serious subject?

Well, yes… but when you get on to Google and read the small print, this is what it says: the strain in most cases causes only mild symptoms and the infected person makes a full recovery without requiring medical attention and without the use of antiviral medicines.

So whatever you choose to believe, someone out there is telling us porkies…