Why the benefits of swine flu drugs are well worth the risks
Experts dealing with the swine flu outbreak in Ireland are right in stressing that the public should not panic about the effects of the current wave.
The pattern of the outbreak to date has been largely as predicted. The number of cases has increased considerably and, unfortunately, we are now dealing with the tragic reality that, as predicted, there would be deaths from the H1N1 infection, as indeed, there are deaths from the "regular' flu each year.
The latest concern to be aired is over the possible side effects of antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu. We have been much more sparing in our use of this antiviral in Ireland than in Britain.
Antiviral drugs are usually being reserved only for serious confirmed cases of the flu and for at-risk groups of patients.
A new report from Britain has indicated that these drugs can cause vomiting, which may lead to dehydration and other adverse effects, including nightmares, in children.
However, the HSE's advice remains that parents should still allow their children to be treated with antivirals in spite of the side-effect warnings.
This advice is sensible. The side effects reported appear relatively mild and the benefits of taking the drug certainly seem to outweigh the risk of adverse effects.
This is the judgment call people have to make before taking any drug. All drugs have side effects and although serious effects are reported with some drugs from time to time, the antiviral drugs have been around for a while and are generally trusted for tackling flu.
Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are, at present, the main weapon in the battle against swine flu until a vaccine becomes available, probably by around October.
Vaccines against pandemic flu cannot be produced instantly and can only become available once the virus has been in the community for some time.
Scientists can, however, now fast-track the process by which such vaccines are developed. Vaccines arrived too late to have any effect on the major pandemics of 1957 and 1968, but should arrive in time to help tackle the spread of the current pandemic.
One pharmaceutical company, Baxter, said last week it has produced its first commercial batches of a human swine flu vaccine called Celvapan.
Trials to confirm the safety and effectiveness of the Baxter vaccine in adults and children are due to begin this month.
Other drug companies are also working on vaccines.
People will often have worries about the side effect of vaccines, particularly a new type.
The World Health Organisation has reassured people that fast-tracking flu vaccines will not reduce safety and that testing procedures will be strict and comprehensive. The WHO says usually the manufacture of vaccines involves old and proven technology that is not really different to the technology used to make the normal seasonal flu vaccine.
Once the vaccine starts to be administered, first to at-risk groups, our health authorities will have to monitor the vaccine's effects, as the WHO says safety issues could arise when a vaccine is administered on a mass scale and some issues may not show up in smaller safety trials.
In spite of this, the main concern at this stage will be how soon the vaccine is available rather than potential side-effects.
Again, as with antiviral drugs, people will have to make a judgment call on risks versus benefits.
With the pandemic set to intensify as the winter approaches, most people will surely decide that the benefits outweigh the risks.
We need all the benefits of modern medical technology to fight this pandemic.
Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com