Tuesday 27 October 2009

In the Grip of the Gripe

By Richard Morley.
Last week I went with some friends to eat at FrescCo. When the assistant gave me my change she also gave me a 250 ml bottle of Sanex shower gel. Any suspicions that she might be making a pretty overt comment on my personal hygiene were dispersed when I saw she was giving a bottle of the stuff to everyone.

A week before that there was a give away promotion for a household cleaning agent at the Avenida de America metro station; The only way to describe the hoard surrounding the two young ladies hosting the event is “clamouring”.

In Madrid we are being advised on personal hygiene and cleanliness on all sides. Huge posters on the metro and at bus stops advise us how to blow our noses, dispose of the used tissue and to wash our hands.

Many years ago Britain had a campaign that warned us that “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases”. “Tos y estornudos traen enfermedades” sort of rhyme, if not scan; The Comunidad PR division missed out on that one.

We are in the grip of a fever.
The fever is an attempt to stop another. The H1N1 virus, Gripe A (pronounced “Grippay Ah”,) or Gripe Porcina, as it’s known here and swine flu everywhere else, has been elevated to public enemy number one. 37 million doses of the vaccine have been acquired by the government and will be distributed to the young, old, pregnant and those with jobs that might put them at risk. Those of us in the middle have been left to fend for ourselves while being directed how to avoid those who might already have the disease.

Now one would think that in the face of this supposed epidemic the authorities would be doing all they could to protect the public as quickly as possible, yet the vaccination campaign won’t begin until the 16th of November. According to Trinidad Jiménez, the health minister, the date has been chosen for “Logistical Reasons”. But I wonder if she’s had her shot already.

The latest figures on the pandemic show that at the moment the infection rate is quite low with only 101 cases per 100,000 of the population succumbing and most of them recovering with aspirin and bed rest. Since May there have been 54 deaths attributed to the virus, but those were among those most at risk: the old and those already weak from another illness.

However, nearly 23% of the population of Madrid is over 65 years of age. In the city there are 52 hospital admissions a day for respiratory diseases and in Madrid the average number of deaths is around seventy a day, or 690 per 100,000 inhabitants. (I took these figures from the Madrid City Report, which claims that reducing the pollution in Madrid would save 562 deaths a year!)

The statistics for the N1H1 virus are for the country as a whole, so it would seem that given the factors that lead to death now, swine flu will not really make a difference.

Not that I would wish to trivialise any death that the virus brings.

There was a very sad case of a Moroccan woman who died of the H1N1 virus while in the later stages of pregnancy. Her baby was born by caesarean section. However the publicity that surrounded the case was because her newborn was given the wrong treatment and also died, leaving a distraught husband and awkward explanations from the hospital. But it was the one of the first cases and so received lots of publicity.

One doctor I spoke to recently thinks deaths from H1N1 might reach as high as 500 as the winter sets in. In a population of 42 million, that’s probably no more than would be expected from the usual seasonal influenza that comes round each year, and hardly merits the name epidemic.

In 1340 the Black Death, Bubonic Plague, carried off nearly twenty-nine per cent of the population. A reoccurrence around the end of the sixteenth century led to 600,000 deaths out of a national population of just eight million.
Pieter Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death", depicting the Plague in the 16th Century. The picture can be found in the Prado.

The 1884/85 Madrid cholera epidemic caused fifteen thousand deaths.

When the news, and the first outbreaks of Swine Flu reached Spain, I did spy a few people wearing surgical masks in the street. I haven’t seen that for a while, but may well reoccur as the numbers rise as winter approaches.

The vaccination programme, as it should be, is being directed to those most at risk. I have known people who have had the illness over the past few months (they normally moan on facebook,) but have all recovered now. But the Spanish health authorities are right to be concerned. A 33 year old Nigerian woman died of the disease in Majorca recently. Previously to contacting the illness she had been perfectly fit.

The doctor I mentioned above was one of nearly fifty people at one of the English Villages I attend. At the beginning of the week there was one person with flu like symptoms. Four days later almost half the group had been infected. Which means half had not! And of the half two or three had to take to their beds and the rest, aided by aspirin and copious quantities of tissues, were able to carry on. So it affected some differently than others and some not at all. It was this that brought up the subject in the first place.

My macabre side thinks that the grim reaper is selective in such matters, although he gets us all eventually! There will be vaccinated people who will die and non-vaccinated who won’t. The disease is spread by viral contagion, and so the greatest single preventative measure would be to close all the bars and nightclubs where thousands mingle every evening of the week. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

A quick glance through last Friday’s El Pais brought me to a small section called “Deaths in Madrid” (Fallecidos en Madrid), where we are told of approximately a hundred people who have recently died. The ages of the deceased are given and I was amazed to see most of the people were in their eighties and nineties, although they ranged from 67 years to Amador Hidalgo Mansilla who topped the league at 101! Spain has the longest life expectancy in Europe and (I think) only second in the world. The Spanish are made of hardy stuff. They won’t let a little thing like Swine flu see them off.
Swine Flu, Reality or Myth? There is some debate. What do you think? Comments please.


  1. Hi, Richard

    It's the first time I visit and read your blog, and it definitely amazed me. I cannot hardly find a blog about Madrid, even among those written in Spanish, which is as well written and interesting as yours. Thumbs up. Keep this superb work.

    I will add it to my Google Reader feed list.


  2. JR: I blush at your kind words. Thank you.

  3. Seasonal flu kills more people. The problem with this one is that it attacks more the young, and most of the people who are dying are young with pathology. It seems that this virus is similar if not the same than the flu of 1918 and was around until about 1956, so old people have got certain inmunity towards it. The flu in 1918 killed more than 40.000.000 people in the world, 300.000 in Spain.