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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Let's hope Swine Flu becomes a pandemic

It's important to cut through the shrill 'Sky News' breathless scaremongering and establish some facts about Swine Flu.

Let me endeavour to do just that, because once the facts are known, it is likely that many people might join me in hoping that Swine Flu breaks out globally and becomes a dreaded pandemic.

Firstly, you should know how influenza works. It's a vast family of viruses, constantly changing, some of which affect birds, some pigs and some us.
Because it's always changing, and because there are literally hundreds of strains out there at any given time, it's not possible to create a perfect flu vaccine.

So Swine Flu is basically a pig flu that has jumped species to humans and is now being passed from person to person. So, no, eating Irish bacon is not a risk (unless they've filled it with dioxin again, of course.)

Every year, tens of thousands of people die from some version of the flu. They tend to be older, frailer people. But every now and again, a strain of flu comes along which most people have little or no immunity to.
Basically, it comes out of nowhere and is so different to the previous strains that no one's body has ever seen anything like it.
When that happens, a pandemic (global epidemic) can happen. And often with pandemics, it's mostly young, healthy people who die.

The last pandemic was in 1968, over four decades ago. That means that one is WAY overdue. But, the world, and especially our part of it, has never been better prepared for a pandemic.
We've got loads of anti-viral drugs that seem on first impression to be a bit effective against the Mexican Swine Flu strain.
And last year's flu jab contained a quite similar strain, so it might offer some protection to anyone who got the jab last Autumn.

But the best news is that this particular strain doesn't seem particularly fatal. When you consider that the Spanish flu of 1918 killed more people than World War I, then you can imagine what very fatal flus could do in this age of modern air travel and the global village.
But while many people have died in Mexico, it seems that for the most part they had delayed some time in getting medical help.
In other countries where travellers have returned with the illness, so far no one has died because they got medical help in time.

Since we're overdue a flu pandemic, I'd rather we had one that wasn't particularly fatal. And perhaps a successful global response to fighting a common enemy, like an epidemic, might be the catalyst the world requires to snap out of the recession slump.

In short, don't lose any sleep over Swine Flu. Equally, don't go holidaying on Mexican pig farms either.

This has been a JC Skinner public health announcement.


Ju said...

In 1918:

In large U.S cities, more than 10,000 deaths per week were attributed to the virus. It is estimated that as many as 50% of the population was infected, and ~1% died. To compare, in "normal" (interpandemic) years, it is estimated that between 10-20% of the population is infected, with a .008% mortality.

The fact the current 'swine flu' has shown to be contagious is alarming. So far the virus has shown to have a 6% to 6.3% mortality rate. It may not seem like much, but please consider the following: The deadly influenza panic in 1918 had a mortality rate of under 1%.

This virus went on to kill tens of thousands of healthy people a day in large cities and up to 100 million people world wide.

Viruses, like this strain of swine flu, kill their host by over-stimulating active immune systems that are robust and healthy. That is why the victims in Mexico were between the ages of 20 and 45.

Some have said that no one in the United States have died from the virus, so we need not worry. Experts say it is only a matter of time. The virus is not prevalent enough to reach statistical significance in the United States, with only a handful of confirmed cases. 93.7% of all Mexicans with the virus recovered.

More cause for worry: The 1918 virus started off 'mild' before it mutated into a raging storm. It also does not mean we will see millions of deaths. It is too early to draw sweeping conclusions. Nevertheless, there is potential for a disastrous pandemic. If 50% of Americans catch this flu in the next two years, and the mortality rate stays at 6.3%, we would witness 20+ million deaths.

This strain of virus is more potent and more deadly than the virus that hammered the world in 1918 and 1919. Viruses come in waves. There are striking similarities to this virus and the virus that killed up to 100 million people in 1918. The first wave is historically more mild than the later waves.

In addition to this virus becoming more severe, it is mutating faster than previous virus that we have seen. In addition, this virus is nothing like we have ever seen before because it combines features from viruses natural in different parts of the globe. We are in uncharted territory.

If it follows the same path as the 1918 flu, we will see very damaging results. However, we must remember we are a global society now and the virus can spread quicker than we have ever witnessed in history. This is very concerning especially since the drugs we have now seem resistant.

While there have been no deaths in America, it is shadowed by the fact the common variable among the deaths seem to be age. While most American cases have involved the very young and very old (under 10 and over 50) the Mexican cases that ended fatally involved the robust and healthy (over 20 and under 45).

This virus kills the host by over-stimulating the immune system. The term that is used when the immune system over reacts is called a Cytokine Storm. It is usually fatal. During this “Storm” over 150 inflammatory mediators are released. This would account for the high mortality rate in 1918-19.


JC Skinner said...

Experts generally accept a c. 20 million death toll for Spanish flu, Ju.
Otherwise, apart from some speculative scaremongering (your Mexican death rate is both premature and also doesn't acknowledge the reaction time of medical assistance in those cases compared to cases in urban areas), you make some good points.

Ella said...

Hi JC, You sound a little like Michael O'Leary, in fact are you? Just joking! Good post.

Sweary said...

My mam sneezed yesterday, so I had her put down.

You can't be too careful these days.

Peter Slattery said...

Every time Sky News shits it's pants about something, I breathe a sigh of apathy. It's sensationalist nonsense. Ever since this new and improved ultra mega death flu has popped up, there hasn't been a second where I've genuinely worried about it. We had CJD. We had avian flu. We were all told 'this is the end, people!' And then nothing. Same will happen with the pig cold. And besides, the health system in this country is so utterly useless, there's nothing we could do to prevent or help a pandemic if it did hit here, so what's the big deal?!

JC Skinner said...

Nope, I'm not that odious bottomfeeder O'Leary, Ella.
A quick rummage through the archives in here might help explain why. Or simply google "Michael O'Leary" and "utter cunt."
@Sweary: That's what we need more of in this country - initiative. Well done. Hope it doesn't invalidate the will.
@Peter: Bang on about Sky Newsless. And while I'm the first to highlight the many, many shortcomings of our health service, I do have to say that on this occasion, thanks to previous headless chicken panicking over bird flu, we actually are pretty well prepared for Swine flu. Credit where credit's due, even if it is sort of by accident that they are ready.

Random Joe said...

What ever happened to small pox in the end?

Now there was a disease !!