‘swine flu parties’ – more than mere sleepovers

I’ve just seen an on-line report that some parents overseas have been organising ‘swine flu parties’ (more than just your average sleepover), deliberately exposing their kids to the virus in the belief that this will give them immunity to a future, more virulent strain. Something like the ‘measles/chickenpox parties’ which have also received some adverse comments on sites like Orac’s.

Those adverse comments apply to swine flu get-togethers as well. This Influenza A (H1N1) virus seems to be reasonably benign, in the sense that most reported cases have involved a mild-medium dose of flu. But even that is unpleasant – why on earth would you deliberately make your kids that unwell? Quite apart from the fact that there will be individuals who develop severe illness, not least those who are immuno-compromised for some reason. (NB measles isn’t a trivial disease either, & even chickenpox can be extremely unpleasant for some sufferers.)

And while it doesn’t make most people seriously ill, the virus is extremely infectious – one colleague who works in this field confirms that press reports that roughly 30% of the population will get it, are pretty accurate. That’s a lot of sick people. And since flu is often accompanied by other, secondary infections that can lead to further visits to the doctor, or in serious cases hospitalisation, it’s quite possible that our health system will be overloaded as the illness spreads. Deliberately spreading it by holding these ‘parties’ is not exactly a smart thing to do in these circumstances – I can only hope that the idea doesn’t catch on here.

There’s another reason for concern. As ERV has pointed out, different viral strains are more than capable of exchanging genetic material. In fact, Influenza A (H1N1) has already done this at some time in the past, as it seems to contain an amalgam of human, swine, & avian viral DNA. There’s a real worry that, if someone with a virulent form of ‘seasonal influenza’ also picks up swine flu, the latter will add virulence genes to its existing genome. A flu virus combining very high infectivity with high virulence would be a very nasty customer indeed.

8 thoughts on “‘swine flu parties’ – more than mere sleepovers”

  • I wrote a reply to some of the sillier comments in that article, but I get the impression that they have closed comments, or are at least slow about updating them. Grr!
    Anyway, I thought the idea was silly (for too many reasons to repeat here…) One thing that did strike me was that people didn’t seem to appreciate that even a “mild” case would lay most people low, that it’s not like a cold or whatnot. I’ll stop there before I jump on a soapbox!

  • Hmmm, it’s a very strange world in which there is one group of parents that won’t vaccinate their children with derivatives of viruses for fear of autism and what ever else and another set that would knowingly infect their children with live viruses that could kill them to get the infection out of the way. I presume they’re not the same parents.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Unfortunately I suspect that in many cases they are the same parents, judging by some of the comments I’ve seen at Orac’s & elsewhere. There seems to be a belief that catching the ‘real’ measles (insert name of other disease here) is in some way better for your immune response than being exposed to an attenuated form. There’s also the rather vociferous lobby that claims not to have an issue with the viral component but rather, with the various adjuvants & preservatives present (which are variously claimed to include things like ether, antifreeze, mercury – thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in 2002 or thereabouts), rat poison, live chicken cells….). There’s an awful lot of misinformation & sheer hysteria circulating around this issue. And a lot of misunderstanding about the significance of concentration/dosage, for example.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    You might remember the hoo-rah last year when the Dom ran a story about creationism trying to sneak into schools, & there were real problems with commenting on that story as well. Seemed to be very very slow & also they had it on 2 sites, one of which closed very early. (The amount of vitriol that particular article generated was quite amazing – I’ve seen it on some of the US sites before but not in NZ. People seem to have become a lot less restrained in their comments as they’ve got into the use of the web. Which is perhaps a mistake, because the back issues of papers are probably a closed book within a week or so, but once something’s said on the web it’s there for anyone to see (& gain an impression of the writer) for a very long time indeed.

  • Carolyn Michelle says:

    re: the exchange of genetic material between viruses, I would have thought our student halls and flats would be ideal places for precisely that kind of scenario to happen, without the deliberate intent. So what is the university doing to educate students about the need for greater vigilance regarding hygiene and health care at this time? Not much, from what I can see; no messages on Moodle or the Uni webpages, it seems they are relying on TV news, which few students watch, and newpapers, which even fewer read, to remind students to at least *try* to keep their germs to themselves…. I only mention this as I have just signed an extension form for an international student who presented a medical certificate listing classic HINI symptoms, having been hospitalised in Auckland with a suspected case of it last week. She’s been tested for HINI (with results still to come), has not yet finished her course of Tamiflu (which is not necessarily a problem) BUT she’s still clearly sick and spluttering, wandering around campus. Again, not necessarily a problem since she’s unlikely to still be infectious, BUT it occured to me; how many students on this campus are actually aware of the symptoms and how they should respond to them? She will have no doubt been well informed while in hospital, and was presumably in quarantine for the required 72 hours, but plenty of other students won’t get so sick that they need medical treatment, while many others are busy studying for exams; they simply won’t have been paying attention to this issue just as it is about to really become a problem in NZ. So – our very own student halls (and more worryingly perhaps) all those dirty little student flats that get dirtier this time of year as students cram will be an ideal mixing ground, I would have thought…. Perhaps warranting slightly more effort to educate the student body than we seem to be seeing at present? Oooh, and what about the exams themselves? Every year students turn up who really are too sick to be there….

  • Alison Campbell says:

    These are all good points & I don’t know the answers. A number of us in Science have been asking exactly the same questions – I’ll put something together & send through to B Block to see if there are any answers.
    On the issue of your student & her infectiousness or otherwise – there was an article in the Herald this morning which said you’re infectious for around 7 days from first onset, or – if you take Tamiflu – for about 72 hours from when you first start taking the medication. (I hope she does finish her course of the drug as otherwise there’s some slight chance of engendering resistance in her subpopulation of the virus.)
    I do wonder about the prevalence of the virus in the wider population, actually. In my experience a lot of people who have only a mild dose of the (seasonal) flu never go to the doctor. So if they aren’t particularly sick with H1N1 they may not trot along to their GP, will go undiagnosed (which will be the case anyway once it really spreads through the population, as the health service won’t be able to keep up), & so will remain out there shedding virus.
    Which, as you say, is probably the case every year with our own students (& those at tertiary institutions up & down the country). They are sick but don’t want to miss an exam, so come along anyway. I’ve told a couple of my own students this week that they should see a doctor & put in for special consideration, rather than front up in the exam room coughing & spluttering.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    And since then, we’ve had an information sent round about how best to manage the risks. Since I see in the news that the government has pretty much decided to manage this outbreak, rather than try to contain it, there’s probably not much we can do apart from being careful with hygiene – regular handwashing & all that – advising students to stay home when they’re not well, & doing the same ourselves.
    And on those issues – I do have to wonder how far the hygiene message has sunk in when people still wander off out of the toilets without washing their hands! Yeuch! And we’ll be talking about how to manage a situation (hypothetical, right now) where a number of teaching staff are off sick at the same time. It’s not like high school – we don’t get relievers!

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