Seasonal Flu Blues

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The Covid-19 like symptoms of a normal cold are giving people sleepless nights days ahead of the poplar pollen infection, reports Farzana Nissar

Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, PK Police flanked by Dr Saima Rashid, the GMC Principal, visiting Zakura belt of Srinagar. Pic: DIPK

Sitting in her bed, with some medicines by her side, masked Nighat, 26, is scrolling down her news feed on Facebook. With dark circles around her eyes, she sighs frequently. Some days ago, Nighat developed symptoms like a sore throat with a mild cough and ever since she is having a hard time sleeping.

With the spread of the deadly Covid-19, feelings of worry and unease can be expected. But in Kashmir, the seasonal flu adds to the anxiety. Every year in winters, Kashmir witnesses flu outbreak. It is a respiratory infection that is caused by Influenza B virus, and the symptoms may include fever, headache, runny nose, sore throat, or cough and chest congestion.

Mimicking the symptoms of Covid-19, the seasonal flu has created panic. Although patients like Nighat get their medical check-up done, they still fear the symptoms.

“Yesterday I went into her room and saw her crying. She thinks that she might have contracted the Coronavirus. We consulted a doctor at District Hospital Kulgam, and he said she is absolutely fine. She has neither any travel history nor any contact with any positive patient,” Nighat’s mother said. “She remains glued to her phone all the time and reads a lot about this virus. I ask her repeatedly not to worry.”

But Nighat is unconvinced. “Cases of Covid-19 patients are increasing day by day. What if I also have the virus? I have the feeling of hopelessness, as the symptoms are almost the same. Aren’t they?” asked Nighat.

In Self Isolation

In south Kashmir’s Bijbehara, Showkat Ahmad, 54, has spent a week in isolation. He didn’t allow anyone to enter his room, except for food.

According to his family, after developing fever and runny nose, he has started to show some worrying behavioural changes.

“We consulted three doctors in a single day and each one of them told him that it is nothing but a seasonal flu. But he didn’t seem convinced, as he repeatedly seeks medical advice from different people,” said Rafiqa, his wife. “He gets irritated at small issues, which he never used to do before. He excessively washes his hands and always has a number of sanitizers with him.”

Correspondingly, Showkat also feels somewhat different from usual. “Although, I am recovering now and try to convince myself it is not the virus but my heart races every time I think about my illness. I feel anxious about moving closer to a family member,” said Showkat.

A Critical Coincidence

Dr Suhail Naik, president Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) believes that Covid-19 epidemic has caused a parallel spate of fear and anxiety among masses, but the measures implemented to stop Covid-19 also broke the chain of seasonal influenza.

Swine Flu patients at SKIMS, a 2015 photograph

“We are almost out of the seasonal flu as the temperature has improved and the steps that people took like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing helped limit the flu,” said Suhail. “In February this year, we witnessed a surge in seasonal flu but since the schools are closed now, so there are lesser chances of this viral infection spreading from one child to another.”

However, Dr Suhail anticipates that due to the spring bloom a large number of people may develop allergic respiratory disorders, which may further add to the panic. “As the spring season has arrived, Kashmiris will soon be grappling with pollen-induced allergy and the clinical symptoms of which also are cough, cold and even breathlessness,” Suhail said.

“There have been many studies, which suggest that almost 20 per cent of population is allergic to these pollens. So a large chunk of people will rush to hospitals and respiratory clinics, which will be hazardous to them, in the wake of this pandemic.”

Highlighting the gravity of Covid-19, the doctor said that in Phase 3 of the outbreak, any person who develops such symptoms can be considered as a Coronavirus patient. “Epidemiologically, we are moving into the community transmission phase and if a person then develops such allergies, the situation may likely get worse.”

Authorities are aware of the poplar pollen allergies can be a huge disorder. Divisional Commissioner PK Pole has already ordered that all the Russian varieties of the poplars be cut down immediately. The poplars were earlier cut down in millions within and outside Srinagar but it is one of the fast-growing plants that is in huge demand in the manufacturing sector.

Fear Of Quarantine

Recalling the tough time he had with his seasonal flu, Irfan Ahmad, a post-graduate student of Kashmir University said that amid flu it becomes difficult to cope with the stress and fear of coronavirus.

“Every year in winters I get cold, cough or fever, but this time it was scary. I found myself struggling to manage the uncertainty surrounding the virus,” he said. “I never had problems with my mental health before the Coronavirus hit.”

The winter beauty of poplars

A few weeks ago, when the first Covid-19 case was reported in Ladakh, Irfan complained of cough, fever and vomit. He went to a nearby hospital at Srinagar where doctor before prescribing him medicines enquired about his travel history.

“Although it was the doctor’s duty, but it added stress to my illness. After five days, when I couldn’t feel any improvement, my friends told me to go for a Covid-19 test. At that time, I was convinced that I have the virus and I might get quarantined,” Irfan said.

He was then taken to District Hospital Anantnag by his family, where he was again diagnosed for the seasonal flu and admitted for a day. “While travelling towards the hospital, I had to hold back my cough in the bus as I thought other people might also get the virus. It was very suffocating.”  Now Irfan has recovered fully and believes that the fear will entirely go away only when the pandemic ends.

Tensions Up

With the spread of Coronavirus, psychiatrists explain there is a connection between anxiety and seasonal flu. Dr Saleem, Resident Psychiatrist, Government Medical College, Srinagar said that a number of flu patients have complained of anxiety-like symptoms in the past few days.

Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Kashmir (IMHANS)

“We have been getting calls from people who earlier were not part of any psychiatric treatment. Mostly, they are the ones with seasonal flu who complain of sleep disturbances, excessive worry and other stress disorders,” he said.

Dr Saleem suggests people especially flu patients to step away from social media as it fuels the anxiety rather than easing it. “People have become addicted to the internet, they constantly monitor the news and social media feeds for Covid-19 symptoms, causes and other things. They should immediately limit their media consumption to avoid stress.”

Unpopular Poplars

Dr Mansoor, a psychiatrist at District Hospital Anantnag believes that it is very normal to fear a potential threat to our health. “During current times any person who develops flu will instinctively doubt it as Covid-19 because the fear of this pandemic has already been created among people. However, if someone is obsessive by nature, he will take it more serious than a normal person,” he said. “Our society has been very resilient in dealing with past turmoils and hopefully we will sail through this also.”

A study conducted on psychological predictors of anxiety in response to pandemics has suggested that in a disorder called as “mass psychogenic illness” or epidemic hysteria, people misrepresent non-serious bodily sensations as evidence that they have become sick. Misdiagnosis can cause hyper-vigilance, increased anxiety and extreme safety behaviours.

(Some names of patients have been changed to protect their identities)

Axing Notorious Poplars

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