Oh how the media loves a good outbreak of illness. Apocalyptic predictions abound and you can’t turn on the TV or radio or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with a case study of some bloke who has whatever illness it is or advice from an expert in something-or-other.
In 2007 it was bird flu. Do you remember all of those awful images of scientists in China wearing biohazard suits sticking needles into various birds?
Now it’s swine flu. Only this time we face a global pandemic and everyone’s running scared.
Hand-cleaning gel dispensers – the likes of which most of us only normally clap eyes on in hospitals – have appeared in workplaces and public buildings.
Their effectiveness is, of course, tempered by the fact that very few people actually use them.
A quick peek on the internet and you’ll find headlines ranging from “Global swine flu deaths top 1,000” and “Swine flu victims could get 14 days off without sick note” to “Pregnant women are at greater risk from swine flu” and the bizarre “Teddy bear picnics banned as swine-flu rules hit nurseries”.
Finally, after we’ve been swamped with information about the virus (much of it contradictory) for months by the national media, health chiefs in the Potteries are preparing a mass immunisation programme.
The entire population of Stoke-on-Trent – some 240,000 people – is to be offered swine flu jabs as local healthcare workers prepare for a surge of cases in October and November.
In many ways, it’s a blessed relief to hear that the city’s Primary Care Trust is gearing up for a blanket vaccination programme.
It’s decisive and there’s no ambiguity – everyone will be offered the jab.
Ageing local hacks like myself know that when someone of the standing of public health director Dr Giri Rajaratnam advocates an immunisation scheme that is “bigger and quicker than anything we’ve had before” it’s time to take heed.
There will still be the inevitable debate about the safety of the vaccine itself – with parents like myself wondering about the effects of the cocktail of drugs potentially being administered to our offspring.
But it will be a brave mum or dad who says no to a free jab which could, potentially, save the life of their child.
The trick is to be well-informed – to be able to separate the facts from the scaremongering.
It might also help to act quickly if and when you, or someone you know, exhibits the telltale symptoms.
Unfortunately, many of the symptoms are common to ordinary flu and various other bugs and ailments which afflict us all – such as the sudden onset of fever, a cough or shortness of breath, a headache, sore throat, tiredness, aching muscles, chills, sneezing, runny nose or loss of appetite. Government advice has barely changed in recent months.
Crucially, we must keep a sense of perspective or we risk talking ourselves into a panic.
To date, in England, 27 people have died. Each one is a tragedy but most had some form of underlying health problem which contributed to their death.
Some doom-mongers on The Sentinel’s letters pages would have us all quarantined until 2010 and see Christmas cancelled.
However, no-one from Whitehall has yet told us to cease going about our daily lives and, in the end, it boils down to common sense.
We all fervently hope that the bleak estimates of the number of cases the UK may be facing this winter are over-exaggerated and that the death toll can be kept to a minimum.
And we can all play our part by taking sensible precautions, maintaining our basic levels of hygiene and keeping an eye on the more vulnerable members of our society such as children, pregnant women and those with underlying health problems – such as asthma.
Despite the fact that it will inevitably create a malingerers’ paradise, we should also follow Dr Rajaratnam’s advice to stay off work for seven days if we exhibit swine flu symptoms.
Yes, even if it means those who will do anything for a duvet day again dumping their colleagues in the mire at the first sign of a sniffle. You know who you are.