The swine flu crisis
By Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 1320
The news lately has been buzzing about the swine flu. Excuse me, I mean the “H1N1 virus”. Or the “2009 H1N1 influenza virus”. Or the “H1N1 swine flu”.
You know what? I’m going to forego the medical designation and just call it “the swine flu”. It’s less technical yet more specific, it’s the name that was originally used, and most everyone knows what I’m talking about.
For those who don’t, what I’m talking about is the subject of constant news reports. The swine flu is a nasty strain of the flu that started in Mexico and has now spread to the rest of the world, with the United States and Canada currently being the next hardest hit.
Let me give you some frightening statistics. These numbers apply to the United States:
There is a disease that can infect up to 20% of the population.
More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from complications.
About 36,000 people die from this disease yearly.
No, I’m not talking about the swine flu. I’m talking about the regular flu. You know, the one where you’re supposed to protect yourself by getting a yearly flu vaccine.
I bring up this similar disease because the swine flu is similar to the regular seasonal flu. I’ve even heard reports that the seasonal flu is more dangerous – it certainly kills a lot more people. At the time of this writing, there have been three swine flu deaths in the United States and Canada.
About the statistic where 200,000 people are hospitalized from complications of the flu: that’s the key, the complications. For flu types of both regular and swine, the people who die are most likely to have died from complications, and not the flu itself. This indeed has been the case in the deaths in the United States and Canada.
The media and the swine flu
This doesn’t stop the media, though, as they warn and scare and promote the idea that the world is on the verge of a deadly global pandemic. Maybe it is. But any thinking person should be skeptical, and should take this assumption and verify it. What does the evidence say?
Here’s what we know:
We do not yet have a vaccine for the swine flu. Experts estimate 3-6 months before we get one.
If we did have a vaccine, ramping up production to inoculate the entire world would take a long time.
Current deaths and infection rates of the swine flu do not match the more dire predictions of what should be happening. That is: the swine flu is more tame than expected. Its lethality rates are about the same as the seasonal flu.
The word “pandemic” is a scary, scary term. And it seems the vast majority of news reports use it. For good reason, too – the swine flu is on the verge of pandemic. There are three requirements before a disease can be categorized as a pandemic:
A new disease must emerge
That disease must cause serious illness in humans
The disease must spread easily among humans
When you think of the word “pandemic”, realize it’s not a death count. Don’t panic. It’s actually a classification of the ability of a disease. It doesn’t mean people are dropping like flies. It just means that a new disease has been discovered, is spreading, and is potentially dangerous. Okay, that is a little spooky. I still believe you shouldn’t panic, but you’re allowed to be worried.
Here’s why you can worry:
The “Hong Kong flu” occurred in 1968. It killed about one million people.
The “Asian flu” occurred in 1957. It killed at least one million people.
The “Spanish flu” occurred in 1918. Reports vary, but a conservative estimate is that this flu killed 50 million people. A pandemic on this level is terrifying. And the strain designation for the Spanish flu is – get ready for it – H1N1. Does that sound familiar? Also, the Spanish flu started in the spring and was initially mild – that’s what we’re experiencing right now with the swine flu. Six months later was when the Spanish flu began its killing spree.
Evolutionary theory predicts that viruses will evolve to better infect people and evade vaccines. Evolutionary theory predicts the occurrence of pandemics.
And here’s why you shouldn’t worry too much:
The world has never been in a better position to manage and prevent the spread of the flu. We have better monitoring systems, and better medical technology.
The swine flu is just like the seasonal flu, at least for the purposes of transmission and prevention. So what you’d do to prevent the seasonal flu, you do the same to prevent the swine flu: don’t sneeze or cough on people, stay home when sick, wash your hands, and quit rubbing your eyes, putting fingers in your mouth and picking your nose.
The swine flu outbreak has indeed been light. It hasn’t yet spread like it was predicted to. That’s not to say it won’t – we have to wait to see if it will turn ugly – but right now it’s not as bad as it was supposed to be.
Swine flu responses
There have been many responses specifically to the swine flu outbreak. China, Russia and Serbia have banned all North American imports of pork, even though the disease doesn’t spread through pork. The Egyptian government killed all pigs in Egypt – all 300,000 – even though no Egyptian pig had the swine flu virus.
A favorite media photo-op is to take a picture of someone wearing a face mask. The masks don’t do anything. Or at least, over-the-counter masks – including many surgical face masks – won’t protect you from the flu. You need to get a specialty mask with a rating of N-95 or N-99.
Some people have called their doctor, asking for a preventative injection of “tamiflu” or other antiviral medication. While this would work for some, this would be a terrible long term idea: this could evolve the flu strain into a type that is immune to that antiviral drug. Such drugs should be used sparingly, since the more you use them, the less effective they’ll be. Not to mention, you’re using up your antiviral supply. What happens when other patients actually get sick and need it?
These responses to the swine flu all indicate an attitude of “better safe than sorry”. That’s understandable. But some responses are inexcusable, since they advocate dangerous behavior, swine flu or no. An example is this recommendation from a chiropractor. Here’s the text of the pamphlet they’ve reportedly distributed online and at their office:
“How can I protect myself from swine flu? Build your immune system! Get adjusted! Studies show that being adjusted twice a week can increase your immune system function by up to 400%. Limit the amount of sugar in your diet! Sugar depresses the immune system. Foods to avoid would be the added sugar to your coffee, soda, sweetened drinks, candy, alcohol and white flour products. Drink more water! Wash your hands frequently.
Use natural disinfectants like essential oils that fight viruses (eucalyptus lemon, lavender, tea tree oil are the most popular). To disinfect a room from the flu virus, you should buy a new plant sprayer, use warm but not boiling water inside the bottle, add 4+ drops of a oil listed above (your choice) per one cup of water, shake before each use and spray on hard surfaces throughout your house and use a clean rag to wipe down the surface. You can also disinfectant [sic] a room by spraying the mixture into the air.”
You may have noticed they did recommend washing your hands. That’s good. Too bad it’s crowded out by all the scientifically illiterate nonsense.
How to avoid the flu
We have some sobering predictions about what might happen. We’re in the frustrating position of simply not knowing what’s going to happen next. The media is scaring us. Most of the medical community and relevant government agencies say to be vigilant, but don’t panic. Some people are either going overboard, like what was mentioned above, or are defaulting to just doing nothing at all.
So while we wait for a pandemic to happen or not, while we wait for experts to develop a vaccine, let’s make some simple recommendations. You don’t even have to second-guess me – these come straight from the Centers for Disease Control:
1) Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.
2) If you are sick, stay at home.
3) If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose.
4) Wash your hands often.
5) Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
6) Keep healthy. This means to get enough sleep, exercise, decrease stress, and drink and eat well.
Swine flu music
For the podcast listeners, you’ll have noticed the music playing periodically throughout this article. This is a piece created by Stephan Zielinski. The swine flu genome has been sequenced. Stephan took a portion of that sequence and assigned certain parts to percussion, piano and other instruments. What we’ve been listening to is music sung by the swine flu, literally transcribed from its genes. It’s fascinating being able to derive music – a human-only invention – from something non-human. It’s also educational: this is an easy-listening reminder that when evolution talks, we’d better listen.