Masking the problem?

We are living in uncertain times. Circumstances will probably have changed by the time this column appears, but whatever happens, swine flu will probably still be making headlines.

People don’t like uncertainty, either as patients or doctors. It would be easier if we could predict the spread of disease reliably, or the effect of medications accurately. The prospect of a swine flu pandemic has triggered a million questions and concerns – and the answers to a substantial proportion of them remain unclear.

This is not stopping many people from trying to make a fast buck. Companies are selling alternative and complementary medicines – which will, so they say, reduce the chances of flu – and expensive hand washes, insisting they are essential in pandemics. These products parade all manner of claims, yet few admit they are untested. Conversely, people who are honest about the uncertainty of the evolving flu situation have been misquoted or have had their estimates pushed to the edges of reason by an anxious media.

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