A woman just has a cold, while a man has the flu


OPINION: Although the country has been swept by flu, both sexes have responded differently, writes Anne Marie Hourihane

IT IS the truth universally acknowledged that without women there would be no Christmas. This eternal verity was most recently pointed out by Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue. But it was also recognised by our ancestors. That is why tomorrow, January 6th, was designated Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas).

Nollaig na mBan has always marked the first time that women have had a chance to sit down in almost a month. In olden times they used to ease themselves on to a three legged stool with a sigh and say - in Irish - "Thanks be to Jesus it's all over."

Even those of us who confine ourselves to posting our Christmas cards on December 23rd ( sorry about that) and buying a strangely cuboid Christmas tree - in other words those of us who constitute the Christmas slouches - can observe the mind-boggling labour of our more conscientious sisters.

So we have senior executives obsessing over what exactly Christmas crackers contain, and confident professionals reduced to tears by the Christmas tree lights.

I once stole an explosive story from a British newspaper revealing that Delia Smith spent every Christmas in Barbados, as her loyal followers stayed at home weeping over the turkey.

Were her loyal followers glad that Delia had escaped the Christmas grind? Were they hell. Women are the mindless pit ponies of the Christmas industry. As they used to say in olden times, surely to God it's time for a rethink.

This Christmas has been particularly tough, because there has been an outbreak of a condition that manages to be both over-reported and under-diagnosed. We are talking, of course, about Man Flu. The Urban Dictionary gives six definitions of Man Flu, of which the most succinct is: "A slight sniffle, or cold that is turned into a dreadful condition by the imagination of the male sufferer."

Therefore, although the country has been swept by some sort of influenza outbreak - there were four times the number of normal cases reported to GPs round the country, according to an article by Dr Muiris Houston in Saturday's Irish Times- there has not been any significant research as yet into the differing biological responses of the sexes.

But there was a fascinating statistical nugget in Houston's report that would indicate more research is desperately needed. "A doctor on duty in Co Kerry on New Year's Day reported that he saw 50 per cent more patients than normal. He said the majority of those with influenza symptoms were young men aged 18-35."

It will be noted that it was not the elderly that crowded this doctor's surgery (this is the group least affected by the latest flu virus, apparently). Or those suffering from chronic illnesses. Or even the parents of vulnerable young children. But young men in the prime of life. Young women in the prime of life were presumably at home helping their mums, baby-sitting their nieces and nephews or perhaps fighting through their hangovers unaided.

And this is why you found hollow-eyed women in the kitchen at Christmas parties, as your hostess said "Ah, it's just a cold" whilst she loaded the dishwasher, fed the baby and scrambled into her coat to go and collect her mother-in-law. And this is why you had so many fascinating conversations with your host and his mates as they itemised their symptoms for you clutching a beer between frail fingers.

The old medical definition of influenza characterised its symptoms as prostration and a hacking cough. Man Flu certainly shares the first of these. The prostration is only interrupted by a biological need to watch football for hours at a time, even though seeing Munster defeated can have a deleterious affect on the condition of the patient.

The real problem with Man Flu is the strain it places on those who run the real health service - the one that is situated in the family home. And there is a more serious point here. The women look after the men, but who looks after the women? Over the Christmas period an elderly acquaintance became ill with a nasty infection. In the end, on the pleading of his daughter, the man's doctor agreed not to send him to hospital where on a previous visit he had spent 24 miserable and humiliating hours on a trolley. No, agreed the doctor, the man could stay at home where his wife, also elderly, could look after him.

The question is, if it had been the elderly wife who had been suffering from the nasty infection could she have been left in the care of her husband? The answer to this was firmly in the negative. Although there are some men looking after chronically ill spouses and parents, they are rare. That is why, when you ask old women if a sick friend has any nursing care they reply in that other traditional Irish phrase: "No, sure she's no one at home only her husband."

So the phenomenon of Man Flu could bear serious study, if only because it would tell us a lot about how we look after each other. For men it's hot drinks, a darkened room and a sympathetic ear. For women it's shoot them where they lie. Not, you understand, that I am bitter. Happy Nollaig na mBan.