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Name your fever

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Testing it H1N1 has brought with it a serious bout of paranoia
Testing it H1N1 has brought with it a serious bout of paranoia


There are fevers and influenzas galore floating around today

Name your poison. What’ll it be? Whisky and soda? I’ll have the same. Maybe an Indian make, and a small peg will do. You want yours on the rocks? I’ll have mine with cold water, no soda and no ice. On second thoughts, given the weather, I’ll settle for a large brandy – and warm water, please.

Name your fever. What’ll it be? Fever with cough and cold? Fever with sore throat or with body ache? Or just high fever with no other symptoms? How many days would you like it to last? Two, three or five? And would you rather treat it with paracetamol and cough syrup or with an antibiotic?

It’s fever season, and if you’re not under the weather, someone you know is. There are as many brands and combinations as you’d find on the menu in a well-stocked bar. If only treating a fever were as simple as downing a drink. Let me cheer you up with a joke I just thought of. What did the clueless doctor advise the fever patient to take? Flummox.

Right. You want to kick me in the pants now. You’re in no mood for jejune jesting because you’re feeling as miserable as a cat in the rain. But don’t you get the feeling that doctors are often unable to put their finger on the exact brand of fever you have? That half the time when they prescribe fever medication, they’re winging it? There are fevers and influenzas galore floating around today but most of them have no name. In that respect, H1N1 is an exception. But its identity has brought with it a serious bout of paranoia. If you have a trusted family GP, like we have, he’s no doubt the sensible sort who throws cold water on your red-hot surmises. When my brother suspected he had swine flu, and I brightly suggested it might be dengue, our GP dismissed him with paracetamol and bed-rest.

Now that a vaccine is on its way we can dare to make light of “hini” (pronounced “heeny”), a pet name for it that I heard last week. A friend’s daughter was convinced she’d caught the hini when, after a trip to Mumbai, she came down with a cough, cold and 102 degrees. It turned out to be an allergic fever caused by an air-conditioned compartment. At least, that was my friend’s diagnosis – the doctor was probably silent on the matter. That’s the other thing about fever: it turns everybody into an unlicensed physician. On the basis of what you underwent, you confidently diagnose another’s illness. For instance, if your friend tells you he woke up with a high fever one morning for no apparent reason, you might say knowledgeably, “Oh, it will come down to 99 in one day and stay at 99 for another four days. That’s exactly what I had.” It’ll turn out to be nothing of the sort. His fever would have subsided after two days of paracetamol.

A fever, when we were growing up, was as common as the cold and as harmless. You stayed wrapped up in a coarse blanket in the height of summer because you were supposed to “sweat out” the damn thing. The thermometer was your enemy, sentencing you to indefinite captivity. You couldn’t read a book because it would give you a headache and so you fretfully stared at the ceiling all day. I remember idli with sugar, and broken-rice kanji with plain salt lime pickle. Bleah! “Nothing oily or spicy” was the parental command. And I mentally translated it as “nothing tasty”. Not that one could taste much, with a bitter, furry tongue. The quantity of food was limited because one supposedly couldn’t digest it.

Antibiotics arrived on the scene when I was out of school and frequent fevers were a thing of the past. Too bad, because with antibiotics came an unrestricted diet. That the doctor urged us to eat normal food and eat well when we ran a temperature was a source of wonder to our parents. Well, we all know where the wonders of antibiotics and their over-use have led us to – ever more virulent and cunning strains of diseases that fight the toughest pills.

No wonder our doctors are foxed by the new viruses that pop up every season. One of my friends caught a fever while she was at work. Her joints and muscles grew weak and achy. In a day or two she had turned pink from head to toe. She was covered with reddish blotches and she went around telling people she was turning into a plum. Was it an allergy to the antibiotics she was taking for the pain and fever? One doctor said so, but another ruled it out because there was no itching. Just a form of arthritic fever, he said, adding that it was called “tomato fever”!

To be fair to the man he didn’t invent the name. “That’s what everyone in Kerala is calling it,” he told her. Our southernmost state was apparently teeming with bright pink patients who were laying the blame for their condition squarely on our fair city. People who travelled to Bangalore and returned were importing tomato fever, claimed the natives.

Talk about a fevered imagination! What they need is a massive dose of Flummox.

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