Spectator – Carla Carlisle

I’m standing in the gun safe, a fireproof closet in the cellar that contains a jumble of tarnished silver, a dwindling collection of family jewels with valuations too dismal to merit selling, and the guns. Not the pair of Purdeys that should be here. Those were given by my husband’s great aunt to a neighboring farmer who helped her get the harvest in the year her son died. That the guns were worth far more than the harvest was a detail the neighboring farmer never let on. Still, I’m not down here to chew over the bitterness of things.

Nor am I here to examine the pearl-handled fruit knives or to count the krugerrands (down to four). I’m here to check on the expiry dates of my stash of Tamiflu 75mg. Like the harvest paid for in Purdeys, these antiviral capsules may not stack up as rational economics. Certainly, my husband thinks my investment in oseltamivir phosphate was as flaky as Aunt Sophie’s gesture with the Purdeys. But, this time last year, my investment (okay, I admit, nearly $1,000 the price of a pair of Purdeys in the 1920s) felt clinically responsible and psychologically resourceful. Remember when every headline blazed with dire warnings? When every migrating bird was a threat? One scientist even predicted that wild ducks could be the Typhoid Marys of bird flu: getting the virus, spreading it to other birds, never becoming ill themselves.

Dr Hassan, my GP and a specialist in the laid-back school of medicine, urged me to relax. ‘Dead birds don’t fly. Migratory birds won’t spread the virus if they die soon after being infected.’ He was also dubious about me buying Tamiflu online from a Canadian pharmacy, because ‘no one knows how effective it is, how much a dose should be, whether it helps if taken late in the course of the disease’. Then there was the rumour that some online ‘Tamiflu’ was counterfeit, corn starch and gelatin tablets in a Roche box.

Still, from time to time, I Google bird flu for a progress report. My favourite site is the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, which calmly states that bird flu?or A(H5N1) to virologists like myself has infected tens of millions of birds, but fewer that 200 people, all of whom caught it from birds. I’m not comforted by reports that the infection is mainly in domesticated chickens and turkeys, whose symptons include ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production just when all my chickens look ropy and have stopped laying.

And this morning, I came across a new report from Stanford which claims that the single most effective intervention isn’t Tamiflu, but face protection. Cover the face during a pandemic period, and you avoid ‘aerosol and droplet transmission’ the spray that comes from sneezes, coughs and breathing plus you have the bonus of reducing contact by making it hard to place fingers into your mouth or nose.

The masks recommended by the researchers aren’t N95 respirators, like we use in the grain store, but surgical masks like dentists wear, which, being more comfortable, you are more likely to wear. The Stanford scientists strongly urge governments to begin stockpiling the masks and respirators.

I confess I wish I’d read this research before I invested in Tamiflu (half of which expires in 2007, half in 2010… go figure). Meanwhile, I see that Amazon is having a three-day sale of surgical masks. They come in two sizes in a fetching colour of duck-egg blue. ‘Buy now with 1-click’ is telling me I’ve no time to lose.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 2 November, 2006.