Rx for Mass Hysteria?

There was a long-running joke when I was at school. It seemed that no matter what ailment you came down with, no matter how severe, the school nurse would prescribe exactly the same treatment.



“Take some painkillers” was always the stock standard response, no matter whether you had a sore head - or a missing head. I remember one 8-year old boy who was given nearly fifty paracetamol tablets in five days before someone finally took him for an X-ray, where he learned he had a broken wrist.

In our youth, we would while away our time by regularly describing in gory detail the potential health concerns with which we might confront the school sanatorium. “Nurse, I’ve ripped off my testicles while going down the playground slide!”. “Oh dear, that’s very serious isn’t it? We’ll have to give you a double dose of ibuprofen this time.” And so on.

I was reminded of my old school nurse when reading about the recent revelation that the British Government apparently wasted £500 million on the drugs Tamiflu and Relenza in the wake of the Bird Flu scares of 2006. These treatments, as now determined by the gold-standard Cochrane Collaboration, apparently had very little benefit beyond that of taking paracetamol.

The first great pandemic of the 21st century

Let’s rewind back to that time, shall we?

It’s 2006 and the country is gripped by fear. Experts warned that the pandemic would create 750,000 deaths in the UK alone. Every news report would provide a running commentary on the number of cases found, where they were located, interspersed with colourful maps showing the scale of the outbreak and footage of the Prime Minister washing his hands every few seconds. Companies invested literally millions in contingency plans. A reliable source tells us that extra orders were made for thousands of body bags - and sites were identified and approved for mass burials.

So, given the heightened state of alert, should the government have taken a leaf out of my school nurse’s book and instructed everyone to stop complaining, take a few painkillers and relax?

Or did it turn to the pharmaceutical industry to find, very quickly, the best available treatment for one of the most complicated diseases for which it was always acknowledged there was no known cure?

Whether or not clinical trial data is published, regulators have full access. Those regulators who we employ out of the public purse made their assessment and said yes, with full visibility of the information.

Poor defence

Watching the Roche defence in the wake of the allegations has been painful, I have to admit. The company’s spokespeople have given some fairly weak responses (our own attempt to interview someone yielded almost no information at all) and not one single person has pointed to the desperate situation which we all found ourselves in.

We needed a treatment, fast. We needed Tamiflu, because it was the best thing we could get our hands on at the time. The rush no-doubt contributed to the lack of scrutiny over clinical trials. And both Roche and GSK have tried very hard not to make the information available publicly since, for fear of the fall-out which has now just occurred.

But who are we blaming here – Roche for not having instantly conjured up a perfect treatment, or the government and regulators for simply getting what they could to avert huge panic?

Tamiflu may have its clinical effectiveness called into doubt. But as a cure for mass hysteria, it worked brilliantly.


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