Swine Flu: Activating Your Pandemic Panic Pause Button

The New York Times reported this week that the World Health Organization raised the Swine Flu alert level to phase 5, one level below all-out global pandemic. “All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans,” warns Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the W.H.O.

Phase 5 hasn’t been declared since the Avian Influenza in 2005.

This should make you feel better, unless you or someone you know came down with the Avian Flu.

Two salient characteristics of a virus are transmissibility and virulence.

This H1N1 so-called “Swine Flu” virus, like almost all influenza A, is VERY transmissible. Similar to colds, stomach bugs, chicken pox and more

BUT—

Unless it’s a virulent (i.e. vicious, dangerous, killer-type) strain of influenza, the answer for most of us can be “so what?” And the CDC certainly seems to be saying that this virus lacks those characteristics.

Not to be too facile about the 10, 20 or 30 thousand deaths that influenza causes in an average year, but that translates into a very small percentage of our population.

For instance, influenza is fatal to about 35,000 Americans every year. Nine out of ten of these fatalities occur in people over age 65-70, and a huge percentage (nobody quite agrees) occurs in people with underlying medical issues like heart disease, lung disease or immune compromise. Illness and deaths in otherwise healthy people will always occur and make the best news stories, but this is an inaccurate portrayal of influenza.

Stephen Hume’s article in the Vancouver Sun perhaps says it best: “‘Eighty-one dead in Mexico; U.S. declares emergency,’ read one of the headlines Sunday. Yes, 81 dead in Mexico is something to grieve and is cause for public concern. Each one of those dead represents the anguish of a family. Yet, as the aphorism goes, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. It’s confusing the statistic for the tragedy that exaggerates fear.” (Emphasis added.)

This virus will spread all over, create panic, be identified as the cause of many, many, many more deaths than it actually causes and then will fade away with the real data gathered over the next year or more.

Today or tomorrow… phase 6 is expected.

Just to say it again, this flu poses no great threat to you or your family.

Jay N. Gordon, MD, FAAP