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Your cash or I'll sneeze

How you and your iPhone can save the world from calamity as flu fears spread. And notes on an ounce of prevention.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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VijayTHE GREAT thing about my iPhone – at least when it’s functioning – is its uncanny ability to elicit gasps from passersby, usually as the svelte silver casing slips yet again from my sweaty palm to land with a disconcerting clunk on the floor. Not unlike a precocious child dropped repeatedly on its head, this has retarded the phone’s ability to satisfy even my outrageously pedestrian needs. I simply need to make phone calls. I don’t use my cell phone to send out “tweets” every time something ravishing, like a perfectly boiled egg, catches my eye. I do not use this contrivance to work out, through GPS, my latitude and longitude coordinates to three decimal places so my mother can zero in on Google Maps to warn me about a growing bald patch. “No ma, that’s that the Sahara. I’m a bit further east, in Hong Kong.” A simple street address will suffice for most occasions.

But my dying iPhone can access a mind-boggling array of applications like “The Moron Test”, and “Amateur Surgeon”. It also offers a remarkable “Swine Flu Tracker” and the “H1N1 Update”. These pick up news feeds and “tweets” from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) so that in the comfort of your bedroom, surrounded by loved ones, a large furry dog, and a riveting episode of Inspector Morse, you can instead proceed to the scare the bejeezus out of yourself and everyone else.

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Then there are the Google flu alerts. The search giant keeps watch on query clusters – and spikes in activity – about any related subject to gauge interest, panic, and possible outbreaks. It is by no means a scientific approach but the model appeals to those with a statistical bent. Does a caterwaul of flu searches in a particular location mean that city is a) experiencing an outbreak, or b) simply paranoid? Is the complete absence of online search in Mongolia indicative of a) no flu, b) no electricity, or c) supreme sangfroid? And can this service track outbreaks of adult site searches so that the oppressed – and rudely distracted masses – can finally head off to check out some really cool stuff and give the inflatable doll a rest? We don’t really know.

What would you do if confronted by an outbreak of melamine? Run? Buy a dishwasher?

Among other things, the CDC lists travel notices relating to H1N1 in the USA, yellow fever in Brazil, pertussis (whooping cough) in Australia, cholera in Zimbabwe, meningococcal diseases in India and Africa, chikungunya fever in much of Asia, rabies in Indonesia, H5N1 avian flu, Marburg in Uganda and even “melamine” in China. What do you do if there is an outbreak of melamine? I must confess I have never seriously thought about this. You could don rubber gloves, catch the stuff and toss it all into a large dishwasher. Or you could mix it in your food, as happens in China, to produce an astronomically high protein reading.

The World Health Organization, WHO, estimates that seasonal influenza kills almost 250,000 to 500,000 people a year, not a trifling number. Malaria kills a million people a year. Then look at percentages. Marburg, like Ebola and Lassa, is a hemorrhagic fever caused by a vile filovirus that turns the insides to mush till you simply melt and ooze out of your orifices. The Ebola kill rate can go as high as 90 percent. Compared with this sort of jaw-dropping hit-by-a-truck statistic, swine flu is a toddler on a unicycle. But toddlers learn, and grow, and acquire more, and ever faster, wheels.

So it is with the current sniffles. It is new, humans have no immunity against it, and thus this odd concoction of pig, human and avian DNA is free to roam, unhindered, through a succession of hosts, learning and mutating into a far more deadly stew. Pandemics creep up in waves, the first perhaps only a ripple.

There is cause for concern. The Spanish flu (“La Grippe”) of 1918 resulted in anywhere from 20 to 40 million deaths, the Asian flu of 1957 caused up to two million deaths, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 resulted in almost a million fatalities. These grim statistics do underscore a positive trend. A wiser world is a safer one. The Hong Kong flu, which had much in common with the earlier Asian outbreak, encountered more resistance through widespread immunity and its emergence during the winter school holidays curtailed rapid spread amongst the most vulnerable populations.

A great silence has now descended upon the land. No one coughs, not even at the movies. There is no clearing of throats. People hold their breath and choke, but no one sneezes. Stewardesses on aircraft flit about swaddled in masks. It’s hard to make out if they’re smiling or sticking out their tongues at you. While swine flu evolves, hotels devolve. Panic and penury have percolated down through the ranks of the service industry everywhere. Where once were poised, unflappable, ever-smiling waiters, now roam understaffed headless chickens in black long-tail suits milling around to no evident purpose as breakfast buffets atrophy and sausages and exotic jams disappear from the menu, and none too discreetly.

It is interesting to note that the viral culprit currently raising epidemiologist eyebrows transfers just as easily from humans to pigs. At least one Canadian farmer had passed on the bug to pigs in early May 2009. Our hapless porcine friends are unaware of Google alerts. Or the untimely martyrdom of 300,000 of their finest in Egypt. Yet, the known antecedents of swine flu stretch back to Thanksgiving 2006 when a Wisconsin teenager slaughtering pigs picked up the H1N1 swine flu combined with an avian strain. Yes, this one has been around and is not so new after all.

It is a Great Nation that picks Paris over Pestilence every time. Let's stay focused on the essentials...

Raking up memories of SARS when six million people nearly perished breathing in their own frightful garlic breath for the first time behind green masks, Hong Kong’s Metropark hotel in Wanchai was sealed off and placed under strict quarantine for a week in May. Bored guests in masks and full surgical garb ate dull government stodge and wandered about listlessly while bargirls, inadvertently snared in the police dragnet, added a sense of colour and commerce to the otherwise humdrum drama.

Hong Kong is no stranger to viral pandemics and remains at the forefront of research. It knows that flu will enter the community at some point and quarantine will no longer be an option. It is evident now that swine flu can easily sail in under the radar as several patients fail to register any temperature at all stymieing sophisticated thermal imaging cameras. The city hopes people will do the right thing – wash their hands regularly with soap, cover their nose when sneezing, and stay home if unwell. It is not a complicated regimen but it is an effective first line of defence. An ounce of prevention (www.cdc.gov/ounceofprevention) is worth a pound of cure.

It is heartening then to see that on 25 May, Google Zeitgeist, which whimsically lists the most popular searches as a finger on the pulse of our less-than-literate planet had, in its Top 10 for USA, duvin, girls gone wild video, kung fu hustle, and even North Korea. Paris Hilton is, of course, a regular. Flu didn’t figure at all. Thank you America. It is a Great Nation that picks Paris over Pestilence every time. Let’s stay focused on the essentials.

If you must sneeze, do it somewhere memorable. The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s M Bar comes to mind. It’s a long quarantine. So get a table with a view, sneeze loudly, alert the health authorities, insist on doing things by the book, and hole up in style for a week as police surround the building. Or you could book a P&O cruise in Australia. My South Indian pals are on to me. Their delicious curries could make a Schwarzenegger weep in ecstasy – perhaps even cause an outbreak of world peace – but they haven’t called in weeks. Maybe they don’t like flashing lights around their house. Maybe they’ve lost my GPS coordinates. Anyhow, my iPhone doesn’t work.

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