A month ago, British Health Secretary Andy Burnham issued a statement urging British citizens not to panic despite a surge in the number of cases of H1N1 influenza in the country. Now it seems health officials have the opposite problem: they are urging parents not to hold "swine flu parties" that some people believe will build up children's immunity by infecting them with the virus.
Parents in Britain have long held "chicken pox parties" at the beginning of summer so that children could catch the disease at a convenient time. But recent chatter on various Internet sites has health officials worried that parents are planning similar events for swine flu in order to make their children immune to the virus should it mutate into a more lethal form. In a statement on Tuesday, Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain's Chief Medical Officer, said such parties were the result of "seriously flawed thinking."
"We would never recommend intentionally exposing anyone to swine flu," Donaldson said. "We don't yet know enough about the risk profile of the virus, and while it has generally been mild in the U.K., in some parts of the world, young, previously healthy adults have died. Parents would never forgive themselves if they exposed a vulnerable child to serious illness."
The British press has reported that discussions about swine flu parties first began in earnest on the website Mumsnet.com, a Web portal for decidedly middle-class British mothers (one of the most active forums this week: "Crucial biscuit question - which are posher: Rich Teas or Custard Creams?). Justine Roberts, the founder of the site, says parents have been confused by what they see as the conflicting approaches of health officials in responding to swine flu. Until July 2, some areas of the country had been taking a containment approach testing all suspected cases, closing schools with confirmed cases and offering the antiviral drug Tamiflu as a prophylactic to those who'd come into close contact with suspected cases while certain hot spots, like London and Glasgow, abandoned the containment strategy. "The truth of the matter is, either you should get it now or try to avoid getting it you can't have it both ways. It's so easy to give a glib representation of ignorant parents who are acting hysterically," she told the Independent.
Whether the confusion was justified or not, Britain announced on July 2 that it was abandoning containment across the entire country, choosing instead to treat with Tamiflu only those who are ill. Health Secretary Burnham said the emergency measure was part of the government's pandemic plan and was meant to relieve pressure on the National Health Service as the U.K. braces for what epidemiologists predict could soon be 100,000 new cases a day. Several other countries, including the U.S. and Australia, have moved to a similar strategy.
David Cummings, a 50-year-old London resident whose two children are suspected of having swine flu, says he and other parents have a relaxed view of the virus, although he says no one would intentionally expose their children to the disease. "I don't know any parents seriously considering the idea of a swine flu party, but I think parents have seen how mild the illness is and are no longer anxious about their children contracting the illness," he says. Health officials may wince at such sangfroid in the face of the virus, but, says Cummings: "Parents are shrugging their shoulders. If the kids get it, so be it."