Why I’m not worried about Swine Flu.
I haven’t actually seen that headline yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some paper, somewhere, gave this “health emergency” the same font size normally reserved for World Wars. I put emergency in quotation marks for a reason: swine flu really doesn’t qualify. This is not to disregard the people in Mexico who have lost their lives, but for Americans, the disease just isn’t really a big deal. I take that back, swine flu may not be that serious of a health concern, but it certainly IS a big deal. Why? Because it lends itself to the same type of breathless reporting associated with hurricanes or plane crashes. It produces great visuals. Most importantly, it glues eyes to screens. You may flip the channel when Matt Lauer is interviewing the latest American Idol castoff, but when the story is a mysterious illness that threatens you and your family, you stay tuned.
Swine flu is an Influenza A virus, H1N1. (The “H” and “N” stand for viral proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, different flu strains have different forms of these proteins.) H1N1 viruses can be really, really bad. But they can also be fairly innocuous. Of all reported flu infections for the 2008-2009 season, 36.1%were H1 flus. There are many different strains. Some are scary because they become resistant to the drugs used to treat influenza. What makes swine flu special is that it is a mix of flu viruses normally associated with pigs, birds and people. A weird new mix means people have less natural immunity. Swine flu is not resistant to treatment, however, and is easily curable if caught in time.
I’m not saying influenza isn’t dangerous. It is. Every year more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized from flu complications, and about 36,000 Americans die from flu-related causes. There are approximately 100 reported cases of swine flu in the U.S. and one death, as of this writing.
But lets say swine flu really expands to a pandemic. Multiply those numbers by 1000; as in 100,000 cases, 1000 deaths. Pretty awful. But, when you compare those numbers to the number of people who die from the flu every year, is it really an emergency? If so, I’ve got a stunning report on another public health emergency: 3,111 Americans are killed in car accidents every month. In fact, more Americans will die in car accidents during the time it takes you to read this article than have died from swine flu. Good luck finding that headline.
I got an e-mail from the company nurse today. It advises me to protect myself from swine flu by washing my hands after using public transportation, and warns that I should see a doctor if I have trouble breathing or I experience “persistent vomiting.” But those are really tips for everyday life.
The treatment of swine flu is straightforward. It is susceptible to the prescription antiviral drugs oseltamivir (tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). What are these drugs normally prescribed for? “[T]he treatment of uncomplicated influenza infection.”
The assistant director-general of the World Health Organization has stated that a Swine Flu pandemic is not inevitable, but if one occurs, it’s likely to be mild, noting the lack of deaths outside of Mexico (where influenza drugs are much harder to come by). Even in Mexico, new swine flu cases are on the decline.
Bottom Line: Should you be concerned about Swine Flu? If you are either really old or really young, and live in unsanitary conditions, you should certainly be aware of it. If you have healthcare and wash your hands? I’d concentrate more on buckling up before your morning commute. And if I’m wrong and this thing does spread and become an emergency? Well, its kind of your fault for relying on health information posted on a page previously devoted to dick jokes.
Dr. Post is Chairman Emeritus of the Custodial Department at Johns Hopkins.