"Why's that?" I asked.
"Swine flu", she replied with a brisk rustle of the pages. "You've had it, mate".
This is followed by the next section - the 'wonderdrug'. The one in today's paper is an existing prostate cancer drug that as well as treating the disease apparently lowers the chance of catching it in the first place - so you have to take it when you haven't actually got any disease at all (according to research by Glaxo Smithkline ... who by sheer coincidence happen to be the manufacturers of the drug). As a sales & marketing man myself I have to admire this one. It's a neat elaboration of the idea that we should all be taking statins all the time (statins incidentally make the test for prostate cancer far less effective, so taking yet another drug as well, to prevent the cancer, makes sense ... doesn't it?). Yes, these guys are brilliant; maybe we should consider investing our savings in drugs companies. If they can convince government that their products should be fed to people who are perfectly well, and at the taxpayers' expense, they've gotta be worth a punt.
But what are we to make of the swine flu threat? I could be wrong, but recent history seems to suggest that it will join the long list of 'potential pandemics' that have failed to materialise. That won't stop our media's finest whipping up a fine old storm though.
Bird flu - remember that? The news reporters zooming up to Scotland to condemn the authorites for not immediately setting up a five mile exclusion zone around a dead duck found on a village pond and the rants from the strident lady who found it? It was wonderful to see London based anchormen ill at ease in the unfamiliar depths of the countryside for their 'piece to camera'. The most hilarious was seeing a pale faced townie dispatched to the wilds of Suffolk stare in wide eyed horror at the sky and declare, "There are wild birds flying around everywhere here!" The entire pub collasped in hoots of laughter.
The fact is, we've had far too many over hyped stories to take any of them seriously any more. 'Killer Eggs' courtesy of the woefully ill advised Edwina Currie, the great 'Mad Cow' threat, Aids killing 17,000 a year in the UK, etc etc. All stories hyped beyond all reason, and none letting inconvenient facts get in the way of a good scary headline. I wonder how many people have to be interviewed before the newshounds find a concerned mother who says how she is "terribly frightened for her kids". Of course, once the headlines start, our politicians feel the need to be seen to "do something", and so we have new laws, regulation and yet another layer of taxpayer sponsored jobs is created to administer it all.
The best bug of all was the so-called 'Millenium Bug', created by IT consultants for the benefit of IT consultants. A superb scare complete with its own logo. Planes would fall out of the sky. Power stations would shut down. Hospitals would no longer function. Civilisation would come to a shuddering halt as we plunged into a new dark age. When the the century turned and nothing happened the (now wealthy) IT consultants told us that it was entirely due to what a great job they'd done! Must have been difficult to say that without grinning, but with tongue in cheek and pockets full of cash, they managed it. Well done chaps! Mind you, I still worry about the family that went and set up home on a remote and uninhabited scottish island with their children and a year's supply of food, as they confidently predicted Armageddon for the rest of us. I wonder if they're still there? They have certainly given no further interviews.
As for the swine flu, we have been told that it 'can no longer be contained' and that it 'is here on our shores' after a couple in Scotland came back from Mexico feeling a tad below par. The hospital's statement that "they are not particularly ill" must have been a bit of a setback for doom mongers (and the face mask salesmen of course) but this was easily overcome by ignoring it in later bulletins and filling TV screens with huge scary graphics instead - these purporting to represent the killer virus (it's a rather pretty blue colour and looks surprisingly like something from the naughtier section of the Ann Summers catalogue).
Should we all wear masks? Per leeese!! It makes sense in Mexico City, but one chap was filmed boarding a plane at Heathrow wearing one. The only proven benefit of wearing a mask is to reduce the likelihood of YOU spreading infection if you already have the virus, but a mask won't neccessarily stop you catching flu. For that you need a respirator mask (with one way valves) sealed to your face all round so that all the air breathed in is filtered. The ladies in the picture have the right idea.
So here is Dr Doodlecat's prognosis - this year you and I will not die of swine flu, bird flu, your asbestos garage roof, eating mayonnaise, eating cheese (listeria - rhymes with hysteria) pork pies or haggis, but you might be run over by a bus (you, not me obviously 'cos I live in the country and we don't have much in the way of lethal public transport. Got chickens though ... and pigs ... oooo-er).
Recommended reading: "Scared to Death" by Christopher Booker and Richard North. An excellent book which forensically debunks the nonsense whilst not dodging the real risks where they exist. I don't go along with everything that Booker & North argue, but they are pretty persuasive.
In the meantime I think that the best advice is given by Corporal Jones of Dad's Army fame:
"Don't panic, Mr Mainwaring!".