Panic over a Flu Pandemic

I’ve been working with counties in Southwest Minnesota to develop All Hazards Mitigation Plans, which are intended to reduce the impacts of natural and man-made disasters.  One of the hazards we consider is pandemic flu:

Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.  [CDC]

This past week we’ve been inundated with data on an influenza virus, H1N1.  It has killed people, which is nothing to sneaze at.  However, seasonal influenza kills people every year, and it has NOTHING to do with pigs.  Type A Influenza is a nasty little critter, and has caused three pandemics in the past century, in 1918, 1957, and 1968.  The CDC relates:

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide including an estimated 675,000 people in the United States, and it is one of the touchstones for today’s public health preparedness initiatives. To put it in perspective, that’s more people than all those who died (both military personnel and civilians) during World War I (1914–1918). The 1957 Influenza Pandemic caused at least 70,000 U.S. deaths and 1–2 million deaths worldwide.

Lost Fort Collins blog relates how the 1918 pandemic affected one community where college buildings were converted to infirmaries, and some ways we’re both more and less prepared to deal with the flu today.

That was then and this is now.  Michael Fumento, a fellow Illini, is a science writer and attorney.  He commented on the Curent Panic last week for Forbes:

There’s panic in the streets over a flu outbreak. “Projections are that this virus will kill 1 million Americans,” the nation’s top health official has warned.

The virus is swine flue. But the date is 1976. And the projection, it turns out, is off by 999,999 deaths. Direct ones, that is. The hastily developed vaccine killed or crippled hundreds. Sadly, the current hysteria outbreak threatens devastation on a worldwide scale.

A calm perspective of the current outbreak of the virus now known as influenza A (H1N1) would compare it to seasonal flu. According to the CDC, the seasonal flu infects between 15 to 60 million Americans each year (5% to 20%), hospitalizes about 200,000 and kills about 36,000. That comes out to over 800 hospitalizations and over 250 deaths each day during flu season.

Worldwide deaths are 250,000 to 500,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), or about 700 to 1,400 per day spread out over the year.

No matter that few bothered to make this comparison during the 2003 SARS hysteria, which caused only 8,096 cases and 774 deaths worldwide with no U.S. deaths.

There’s no hint that influenza A (H1N1) is either easier to transmit than seasonal flu or more lethal. The symptoms are the same, and swine flu cases so far have generally been quite mild.

The situation could be bad, yes, but in perspective it could be alot worse. You can follow CDC on Twitter in you want breaking info.  Otherwise just be smart. Wash your hands.  Cover you cough.  Wash your hands.  Stay home if you’re sick. Wash you hands.  And thank Mike, for some perspective.


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2 Responses to Panic over a Flu Pandemic

  1. Cat says:

    And have you noticed people staying home with their coughs? No, me neither.

    I thought Fumento was too flip in his article, because he doesn’t address the whole cytokine storm thing. I don’t think the CDCs and the WHO are worried about H1N1 progressing like a normal flu, knocking out elderly and such. My neighbor is a doctor with CDC, and he said they’re mostly watching for it to start taking out people between 20 and 40. When that happens, we’re no longer in seasonal flu territory but dealing with healthy immune systems overreacting–for which we don’t have a treatment.

    At least that’s my take from what I’ve been reading.

    I think the international response has been appropriate, while the scoffing reminds me of so many movies where the protagonist celebrates an easy victory just moments before the beasts gathers itself up for the real fight.

  2. John says:

    I was at the National Planning Conference last week when this broke in the media. 4,500 people from all over the U.S. and world. One panelist from the East Coast was up there on the podium hacking and coughing and we’re all sitting as far in the back of the room as we can… oh, wait, we did that in all the sessions. Kind of like church. Easier to Twitter from the back of the room (if their wi-fi didn’t….) OK, distracted there a minute.

    I’m interested in the cytokine aspect. Most of our pandemic hazard planning is how we provide for youth and elderly. Looks like there’s about a gazillion references on the CDC website. Have to ask my local Public Health planners about that, thanks for the tip.

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