Thursday, April 30, 2009

Relax, folks, "swine flu" is just the flu

In the 1976 "swine flu" non-pandemic, more people died of the cure than the disease

From coast to coast across America and around the world, public officials and the media are all engaged in a daily -- no, hourly -- Big Hype over what is now not supposed to be called the "swine flu," lest people stop eating bacon (fat chance). Oh, but wait, they all say "don't panic" even as they deliver the latest panic-inspiring stories about the bug creeping up on you. Last night, I watched an 11 pm Boston newscast, the first 10 minutes of which was consumed by breathless accounts of two boys in Lowell, Massachusetts, who tested positive for the swine, er, non-swine flu virus after a family trip to Mexico. One reporter was outside the boys' school asking parents whether they were "concerned;" another was interviewing Lowell's "emergency management" officials; still others were recounting the latest scary stats from Mexico, etc.

But don't panic!

OK, I do get it. This strain of flu is a new one, so that the human population doesn't yet have a degree of acquired immunity that would slow the pace of transmission. And outbreaks of virulent strains of flu (like the devastating 1918 "Spanish flu," which was also a "swine flu") can infect hundreds of millions quickly. And the consequences for people in over-populated cities (like Mexico City) in countries (like Mexico) where health care is not of the best quality could potentially be rough, if this flu bug turned out to be a tough, virulent strain.

So precautions by health authorities do make perfect sense: alert health care providers to look into flu cases, carefully track the infection and the nature and severity of the symptoms it causes; speed development of a specific vaccine, just in case; and roll out supplies of existing medications so that they are in place where they might be most needed.

However, we'd all be better off (and a good deal less likely to panic) if politicians stopped trying to leverage these events to their own advantage and the media generally stopped literally screaming its wall-to-wall coverage.

The key facts seem to be these (hat tips to Drudge):

-- While Mexico has reported higher numbers of what it calls "suspected" swine flu cases, as of Thursday, the World Health Organization reported a total of 237 confirmed cases worldwide as of Thursday (in a global population of six billion), which resulted in eight deaths.

-- Almost all of those infected either live in Mexico, recently travelled to Mexico, or have been in close contact (mostly as family members) with people who did travel to Mexico.

-- Medical experts believe that, so far, the new flu strain isn't especially dangerous and has caused relatively mild symptoms in most infected people.

Also, this is critical to bear in mind: The ordinary "seasonal flu" we all get from time to time has routinely been far more deadly. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the seasonal flu has led to the deaths of more than 13,000 people in the United States just since January 1st of this year (about 800 deaths per week!). In the last full year for which statistics are available, the 2007-08 flu season, the ordinary bug killed about 36,000 people nationwide.

Most of these deaths occurred among the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. But the very young are always more vulnerable than healthy adults. While the fact that a toddler in Texas recently succumbed to the swine flu is tragic, the CDC says that more than 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized every year because of seasonal flu. In the 2007-08 flu season, it reports that 86 children nationwide died from flu complications.

Panic over potential pandemics can easily cause a lot of crazy things to happen. One early contender for a prize in that department is this story about the government of Egypt ordering the mass slaughter of 400,000 pigs to head off the new flu, even though international health authorities are sure that the bug is not transmitted from swine to humans.

A lot worse can happen due to panic. In 1976, there was a genuinely crazed panic over another strain of swine flu sparked by the death of a soldier at Fort Dix from the bug, which also sickened 155 other troops at the New Jersey Army installation. The panic was driven by a huge governmental over-reaction, which was in turn in part prompted by political considerations. The feds adopted a plan that aimed to vaccinate 80% of the nation's population. The plan ground to a halt after 40 million innoculations (promoted by hysterical mass propaganda like the PSAs embedded above), because three elderly people died from the vaccine and a number of younger people wound up crippled by a severe side reaction. This represented a higher toll than that caused by the flu, which in retrospect, never amounted to much outside Fort Dix.

So if you get the sniffles, along with a high fever and sore throat, by all means, see your doctor. Even more important, get a flu shot to guard against the seasonal flu. Otherwise, relax. The inevitable reprise of panicky stories on tonight's news will be more about ratings than public health and safety.

Got an opinion about the swine/non-swine flu panic? Post a comment.

1 comment:

  1. World is scared of it. Recently, in Delhi India, five persons were taken to hospital suspecting having swine flu; however, four of them are discharged, but samples have been taken and report will be in next 24-48 hours.