(The video can be accessed here)
Aegina, 1st primary school
10th November 2009
This is a talk given to a group of activists in Aegina at the time of the Swine Flu epidemic.
George: I forgot to tell you that Olga Kosmopoulou works at the state hospital of Nikaia and is a pathologist and infectious disease specialist so perhaps from the viewpoint of medical science she has something more than usual to tell us about infections.
Olga: Let me tell you to begin with that I am a very conservative person. I am a leftist and everyone knows that, but I am not one of the people who are always trying to find the opposite viewpoint, particularly when it comes to scientific subjects. What has happened almost every year since I was appointed to the hospital at Nikaia is that they send us instructions for us to prepare for the coming flu epidemic because, as we all know, every year we have outbreaks of flu, larger or smaller every year. There have been certain years that have left their mark particularly, such as 1997 and I’ll refer to them later.
What has made me angry this year is that we had information about a new type of virus that is transmitted very easily. Frightful information began to arrive that a lot of people are going to die, a lot of people are going to get sick. Get organized, get ready! And there emerged out of all this a flu plan that they sent to us and they had got to the ridiculous point of sending to us confidential information that for the flu tomorrow the following hospitals will be on duty…a plan emerged that was based on non-existent health structures. A plan based on who would pick up the telephone first based on there being information facilities, an additional telephone service, a system for exchanging faxes, but in fact – and what do I mean that it wasn’t based on anything real? – if it was true that they were expecting an epidemic they should have appointed a lot of medical staff, urgently. They didn’t. Although they had processed 1,700 appointments – and they had fooled us into thinking they had assigned them to their hospitals, they hadn’t.
The medical personnel they should have appointed urgently if they were expecting an epidemic were not appointed. Space in the hospitals that should have been made ready was not. Primary health care facilities that we do not have were not established. So you start to say, who is trying to deceive me? You start to say, how is it that Mr. Avramopoulos, who was Minister of Health then, and was not doing anything, could spend the last four months talking about flu and smoking? And you have everyone saying: “Ah, here is a good minister who is doing good work because he talks a lot. There is a danger hanging over us and he will save us from it.” That was the first thing that made me angry. The second thing that made me angry was that looking – because usually each year we brief the hospital doctors on the flu – looking in my papers for what I had written in 1997 – I wrote a lot at that time, and what I had written at the time of the SARS also. I saw that in 1997 – SARS, I’ll tell you later what SARS is – 1997 was, if you remember, the time of the bird flu.
There was another huge panic then. It was the flu that started in Asia, that was transmitted from birds to people, that was transmitted, perhaps, from one person to another to a very small extent. At that time they had got everyone in a panic. They had imposed a military-type regime on the hospitals, for everybody. The final result was that five hundred people died – but thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people die each year of the seasonal flu. Economies in South-East Asia were ruined, because they killed all the poultry there. People were ruined. They died of hunger after this.
And the net effect was that they made huge profits selling Tamiflu and so on. I see this and I see that I was persuaded that a danger was coming and that can be seen in my papers. That we had to get organized because a danger was coming. And I am starting to ask myself seriously what is true and what is lies. So these are questions I want to convey to you and from another viewpoint also. It is easy to say: “It’s not a danger. It’s not a problem. Don’t do anything” if you don’t have children. If you have children and the other person says to you: “It’s all very well what you’re saying, the politics and the ideology and the social analysis but if my child catches it, is he/she in danger of dying?” This is the danger we have to address. Or myself. If I fall sick, will I die? This is a question, isn’t it?
So, to take things one at a time from the beginning, from a different starting point now, we ask: What is flu? Flu is a sickness that has been around for more than a hundred years, for sure. We don’t know if it existed before. It seems that American soldiers brought the virus for the first time into Europe during the First World War. Remember that the Americans came into the First World War very late, when Europe had already been reduced to misery and poverty. The soldiers were suffering, those who were fighting on the front. And remember that at this time they had the war with gas. For the first time they were using chemical gas in the battles. In this long-suffering miserable and hungry population, which in France for example shared the same premises with the pigs, this is where the flu virus turned up and as is natural this virus, which – it is probable there was no natural immunity before – it was also the conditions – this virus turned up there and succeeded in killing – some say 20 million, others say 40 million people, throughout the world.
So it is true that there was a great flu epidemic in 1918 from which a lot of people died. What was mainly responsible for this flu seems to have been the economic conditions, the diet, the living conditions of people, the war, more so than the virus itself perhaps. But this remains an open question. Having said that, flu epidemics, small epidemics, have existed everywhere in the world, periodically, but mainly in winter. People died. We are all going to die, but people died. People who were suffering from heart or lung diseases, people who had cancer, people who were very old, very small children under two years of age every year die of flu. But we have never reached that level of mortality that we had in 1918. It is estimated then that two to three percent of those who caught the disease died.
After that, in all the big epidemics – we had one in 1957, the so-called Asian Flu – then, note, very many people died in India – there is poverty there. Not many people died in Europe or America. So we had other big epidemics and pandemics. Fewer than 0.2% died and they were those very specific, very problematic, cases. And it is more or less here that we find the way to deal with flu, what we have to do not to catch it, not to get sick, not to die, not to suffer.
The first thing: regulating contact. Not that hysteria we were talking about. Just don’t take the used paper handkerchief and bring it to your nose. Wash your hands. Simple things. These simple things seem to have been very effective for all the years that we have been concerned with flu. To wash your hands. To put your hand like this, to cough like this. That’s the most effective way to protect yourself from catching the flu. But if you catch it what other measures does science provide? Two types of drugs are in circulation. One of them is the famous Tamiflu, the pill. Is it effective? The reality is that it is not. At the individual level, if I catch flu I will be sick for four days, five at most. If I take Tamiflu I will be sick for a day and a half less. Will it protect me from the complications of flu? Pneumonia from staphylococcus or pneumoniococcus. Not necessarily and not for sure. It’s not certain.
There are statisticians who concern themselves with sick people and draw conclusions. It isn’t certain that this drug protects you. So why do they use it? What is the use of it? Just one. Because flu is not something that concerns big communities – we’ll take “community” in the positive sense – from the viewpoint of how many are going to die, because these people anyway are going to die…through the year we have a proportion of people who die. Pardon me being cynical but it is the reality. It is of concern because if a large proportion of trolley bus drivers get sick, for example, of tax officials, of bank clerks, the schoolteachers, this will put the economy in jeopardy. There will be an economic effect because many people won’t go to work because they will be taking sick leave. This is what is seen as important. So in this case a discriminating use in the sense that I take it and I give it to critical categories, to doctors in hospitals if they are exposed, to nurses and so on, could be of some benefit, but for everyone to be taking it not only does not have practical benefit but if everyone takes it, and they tried it at one time in Japan, the virus very quickly develops tamiflu resistance and there is also a greater prevalence of side effects.
In Japan, which I mentioned before, you had an increase in the number of people wanting to commit suicide, or actually committing suicide, having taken that drug. That’s one type. There is another type that is inhaled. It is less effective. And it can’t be used by the people who are most at risk, people with lung conditions , and so on. So those are the drugs, and what they offer is very little.
Let’s go on to the vaccine. In recent years it has become fashionable – it isn’t completely certain but it seems that it may benefit those specific categories of people who are in most danger of dying: very old people with lung conditions, with heart or liver conditions. that is to say specific categories of patients. It isn’t for everyone to take, like my brother, who is my age and takes it every year. Because if he gets the flu he would develop natural immunity, which is better. There is no particular reason to do it with children. Why isn’t there? Not because of the putative side effects. There is no particular reason to do it with children, because nobody has told us that a sickness that is benign, that you recover from in five or six days, where in very few cases you need further treatment, should be dealt with through mass vaccination.
What consequences will this have? In the society of tomorrow today we are OK as everyone of 50 and above has developed natural immunity from repeated exposure or repeated illnesses. What consequences vaccination for a benign illness will have for tomorrow’s society, today’s children, we don’t know. On the subject of vaccines: the smallpox vaccine is very useful . It saved humanity from smallpox. Full stop. There are some very useful vaccines. The poliomyelitis vaccine saved children from becoming disabled. Very useful. What did the chicken pox vaccine save children from? From nothing.
Sometimes research, medical research, scientific research generally, is governed not by the needs of society but by other needs. As George said before, he who pays the piper calls the tune. He decides what we will research, how we will promote it, how it will be used. In an ideal society where everyone is equal and we’ll enjoy our lives and the children will go running in the meadows, will we have sickness? We will. But I imagine we will have found the way to have a more rational way of dealing with patients to the advantage of society, and not to the advantage of some. As for what flu is, we dealt with that. Every year, with the seasonal flu you play with numbers. Nobody knows. You try to find out. You get contradictory information from the most official sites, from the most official journals.
I will look on the other side of my notes. In the United States how many people die each year from flu? From 20,000 to 65,000 among the patient categories that I mentioned, and I forgot to mention pregnant women, who are supposed to be more vulnerable. How much does vaccination improve the situation in the USA? How much does it protect you from dying? Around fifty percent. But note: in dealing with flu, as with every virus infection at this time of the year, the common cold, etc. it is very important that you be well-nourished, with good living conditions, and that you live in a warm environment. This hasn’t been taken into account in the studies that are in circulation. And I say now: those elderly Americans whose mortality was reduced by fifty percent because they were vaccinated were obviously Americans who had access to the health system. They were Americans who were insured. They were Americans who ate better than others who don’t have that access. And who go to take exercise in the park, probably. So here we have a lot of parameters that we haven’t compared.
I found a study from 2001, an English one, which says something tragic, really tragic. It says, we calculate every year that we have 2.4 percent of deaths in the winter are due to flu and complications from flu with people suffering from lung and heart complaints. The scientists mad a complicated statistical model and they showed that the exposure of these people to cold, to bad living conditions, is mostly to blame. And they come to the following conclusion: perhaps instead of running for vaccinations and pills and medical treatment we should see to it that these people have proper houses and heating. Because what they are dying from seems very largely to be their exposure to cold in the winter. So there seem to be a lot of questions that could be asked. In relations to the effectiveness of the measures we are taking. The simplest measures are the best. That is clearly proven.
Let me say a word or two about the swine flu. We haven’t thought at all about the fact that the swine flu started from pigs. They suddenly stopped calling it swine flu and called it “new flu”. Do you know how they breed pigs in the United States? In the last years, in the last decades, the units have disappeared that have small groups of pigs. The units that have survived the market competition are units that have a huge mass of pigs in one place. They live literally stacked on top of each other. And so as to fatten those animals they transport them from one side of the Atlantic. To exercise them they transport them to the other side. In huge containers. It’s only natural that those animals would get sick. This aggressive breeding policy and the maximization of profit is a factor that we haven’t taken into account in working out why this epidemic appeared. And this isn’t a conspiracy theory. They didn’t make the virus in some laboratory. It is the good old-fashioned truth that infectious disease starts from poverty and from very bad living conditions, whether of people or of animals.
What saved humanity from most of the infectious diseases through the twentieth century wasn’t the antibiotics as everyone thinks, so we take them all the time. It was the improvement in living conditions. And where that didn’t happen, in the Third World, or the Fourth World, the deaths continue on a huge scale. From the moment that the New Flu appeared there also appeared those who hoped, and continue to hope, and they will do it, finally to make a profit from the New Flu. Rumsfeld is a characteristic representative of the government-military-industrial complex that is in power. Rumsfeld made millions in 1976, and continued his career, from a fiasco that took place, and we can talk about it later, so that I don’t talk too much now, with a small flu epidemic in the United States, where again they rushed to vaccinate forty million, hastily, with a vaccine that we not well-prepared. And the result of that intervention by the State was that more people died from the side-effects of the vaccination than from the flu.
Sorry, there is an extensive article in the newspaper Eleftherotypia. The terrible phrase – at that time Ford was the President of the USA – that was said was that it is difficult for Ford go govern and to be popular if he can’t find a danger from which he can save the population. Why did he remind me so much of Avramopoulos here in Greece in the summer? He tried to get himself out of trouble, to escape from the danger of losing the election, say, by saving the people from an imaginary danger. These people exist, and they are continuing. At this moment, at the big meetings, the cartel of the companies – why is it a cartel? They send one representative for all the pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines and pills to go to pan-European meetings or to come to a meeting in Greece. So their interests are not conflicting. They appoint one representative. He represents all the companies. One fellow represents all the pharmaceutical companies at meetings. They will benefit. They have committed the states to paying for the vaccines in advance so that if you are not a good customer who buys flu vaccine each year they will not give it to you when there is an epidemic.
And they have arranged things in such a way that they take the money that should be provided for technical infrastructure, for hospital staff, for medical staff. This huge industry which is much bigger than the war industry. There is an article by Ignacio Ramonet in last Sunday’s Eleftherotypia newspaper which is very impressive and says that for every dollar they spend they take a thousand dollars. That’s their profit level. I recommend that you find that article and read it. So, they derive some benefit. Does the State as such, the political personnel, do they derive any benefit? The answer is that they clearly do. When in England they talked to the people who were living through the economic crisis and were getting sacked and were unemployed and told them about the catacombs they would be digging for the dead. Nonsense. Did anyone die? They had a small epidemic with slightly increased mortality, slightly increased rates of sickness. But there was other collateral damage because they have destroyed the National Health System of England with the intervention of the managers and so on and have closed hospitals, when there was a difficult situation and they said: “There, you have an epidemic” they opened up the telephone lines and they told us this, and promoted it as a good way of dealing with flu.
And another article was published about the case of a mother who telephoned and said to the doctor “My child has got myalgia, a high fever, and he seems to be in a stupor.” And the doctor said: “It is very likely to be flu. Stay at home. Take Tamiflu.” The child had meningitis. So to get out of the situation they sow panic, frightening people, and at the same time they abolish the medical examination at a time when there is a need for it. That was published in a medical journal and it is very serious for us to let them make fools of us with measures of that kind. So there is a profit for some, and profit for others.
I am never frightened to say also that there is a profit for the medical community which takes the form of career and money. I come on television and talk about the flu. I am in a committee on the flu. And I personally, if you want to know, am on a committee, as a substitute member, to measure what are the groups at risk in Piraeus. Are they joking? How can I measure it? Where is the social fabric? Where is the free primary health care? Do they really want to protect the population? Why don’t they give vaccines to the hospitals to cover people who can’t pay? The pneumonococcus vaccine is very good and very effective to combat pneumonia from pneumonococci. We haven’t got it. We have very little. The AIDS patients that I treat, if they haven’t got money to buy it, or if they haven’t got their health insurance papers they can’t obtain it from the hospital. And it costs so much. Twenty three euros for one of them. Over forty for the other. There are two types of pneumonococcus vaccines on the market. When we run out of them they say we will get more expensive ones from another company. So, we shouldn’t be taken in by fairy tales about the measures they are taking to protect the community.
What they want finally, as George says, is for us to sit in front of our televisions, on a sofa, to make sure that when we go outside the house and when we hug the person next to us and when we kiss the children on the street, when the children in the park play with each other, we will catch the flu, some Pakistani will rape us, some Albanian will murder us, and in general the outside world is dangerous and if we have to go out we should wrap ourselves in cellophane.
George: I think that symbolically the inauguration of all this campaign in the Greek community started with the meeting between Avramopoulos and the President of the Republic Carolos Papoulias and in particular when Carolos Papoulias turned to the cameras and looking at everyone via the cameras he said: “Do you hear? Home! Home! That’s exactly what he said. Home! Do you hear? Exactly like that!
That’s good. I don’t have a television, but …
George: It was really like that. Avramopoulos told him how many million vaccines were coming. And he said: “Home!” Turning to the cameras. Sorry.
On the other hand, the questions that emerge in everyday practice: he got eight million vaccines. Even if he wanted to do some rational planning for the population he would have to vaccinate thirty percent of the population to slow down the epidemic. It is ridiculous to take eight million vaccines. Secondly, he took vaccines that hadn’t been tested. Thirdly, for the reasons I said before: why should children be vaccinated? It is ridiculous. Fourthly, he has militarized the hospitals completely, where he demands specific rules, wearing masks and uniforms and a whole host of things that are not suitable for flu. We saw this kind of thing with SARS. SARS was a highly infectious disease which appeared on a very small scale. Here are two ways of dealing with it: in Vietnam, which had primary health care, the doctors when on their motorcyles to the patients’ homes. Vietnam is terrible, we know, but anyway they went on their motorcycles to people’s houses and put them in isolation. That was the end of it. The disease didn’t spread in the community. In Hong Kong, which was next door and didn’t have primary health care or anything, they had reached the point of sealing off entire neighbourhoods, to stick up signs, to display the names and say “These people spread SARS” so that everyone could throw stones at them.
George: Forty euros fine. Forty euros for spitting in the street.
A literal quarantine. They cordoned them off. They let them die at home. In China and in Hong Kong. But in the process they managed to impose restrictions on travel and restrictions on the human personality, controls and so on that they had never had before. Militarization. Because we are threatened by a terrible disease. At that time the World Health Organization was still in a situation where there were some independent voices inside, and they spoke out. And at that time the World Health Organization emphasized that SARS wasn’t as infectious as the Americans were saying. There was a characteristic saying that our American colleagues have perhaps been influenced by 11th September and they make it out to be so deadly. It is not so deadly. Here is an example of reality being distorted for political reasons.
What has remained with us from SARS is the idea that when we have patients with a likelihood of flu we have to dress up like astronauts. And I ask you, how can a doctor, when he is on his own and has to look after two surgeries, have time to go from one to the other and dress up like an astronaut and see twenty-five patients at one place and a hundred at the other?
George: With an airlock.
Right. With an airlock. I don’t want to say anything else. Sorry about the patchiness. I will just say that the real measures that the community must demand on this basis – on any basis! They are making fools of us. I believe they are undoubtedly making fools of us. But if they want to make fools of us let’s play their game and say: “Very well. There is a serious danger. I want such-and-such a number of nurses at the health centre of Aegina, such-and-such a number at the local centres and I want a medical examination at home when I am sick so that I don’t have to go out. I don’t want it by telephone. I want it at home. So bring me the necessary personnel to examine me at home. That should be the demand that should emerge out of every such deception. And it should certainly not be the other response: run to get vaccinated when I am strong and in good health and the person next door is suffering from a lung condition and is really in danger. No. He is the one who will get it. We’ve seen that. Healthy people going to get vaccinated and forget everyone else. We’ve seen that. We can have a discussion if you like and talk about what is happening in Aegina.