Swine Flu: the Beginnings of a Pandemic?

Pandemic: A pandemic (from Greek παν pan all + δήμος demos people) is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. ((See my favorite resource, Wikipedia for historical pandemics, or the more specific article here.))

Epidemic: In epidemiology, an epidemic (from Greek epi– upon + demos people) occurs when new cases of a certain disease occur in a given human population, during a given period, substantially exceed what is “expected,” based on recent experience (the number of new cases in the population during a specified period of time is called the “incidence rate”). (An epizootic is the analogous circumstance within an animal population.) In recent usages, the disease is not required to be communicable.

We woke up this morning with a frightening news topic: a strain of the swine flu has infected and killed more than 60 people in Mexico, and some cases are being diagnosed in the United States. Since the early morning news reports, the numbers of infected across the country, the number of deaths in Mexico, and the countries affected have increased. Every international and national medical body has had something to say about it, including the World Health Organization (WHO), which is honestly preparing the public for the worse case scenario.

But first, let’s back up and get a little background information.

What is the Swine Flu Virus?

Color Coded depiction of the Influenza virus

Color Coded depiction of the Influenza virus

The swine flu virus is a strain of Orthomyxovirida, more specifically, Influenza C.

Influenza C tends to be a little more dangerous than types A and B, and more likely to cause serious sickness and death.

What’s making this strain so lethal?

According to the World Health Organization, this current strain is an A type. Given that this particular strain is clearly being transmitted human-to-human, and that it has traveled to nearly every continent, ((See Google’s interactive swine flu map, or subscribe to their live swine flu RSS feed for up-to-date information)) it’s obvious that containment isn’t going to happen. As many American conservatives (and some liberals, for that matter) are quick to point out, the Mexico-USA border is like a sieve, people cross there all the time. Besides which, it’s the time of year when the more affluent travel to Mexico, and the rapid spread of this disease suggests that’s exactly what is happening here.

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map, or, better yet, check out HealthMap.org’s flu map.

The good news is, said affluent people are more likely to be able to get health care. The bad news is—at least here in the U.S., as opposed to many other developed nations—they are likely to infect a lot of the 47 million Americans who don’t have access to adequate, inexpensive healthcare. One would imagine that, considering the risks for this to turn into a truly serious, Spanish flu level epidemic, hospitals and clinics will treat any and all who come in for help. The principles of enlightened self-interest could be demonstrated in this country.

But I digress.

How dangerous is this, REALLY?

In order to answer that question, it’s interesting to make note of the other swine flu pandemics of the past ((See Wikipedia for a break down of all the past swine flu pandemics))

The best-known is undoubtedly the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-1920, during which one-third of the world’s population— or about 550 million people—were infected, of which one tenth (that’s 50 million people or so) died. Like that outbreak, this version appears to affect young adults more than children or the elderly. It’s also breaking out at the very beginning of summer, almost timed with a serious hike in temperatures, at least in North America where, over the last few days, temperatures have been up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual at this time of year.

So far, however, there are no reports of the truly nasty symptoms of the Spanish flu, which included:

  • blue tint of the face
  • coughing up of blood
  • hemorrhaging in the lungs

Can it be treated?

A subset question deals with treatment. The current thinking is that a few currently available drugs (more specifically, Tamiflu and Relenza , which were touted during the Avian Flu scare a few years ago) will be effective in helping, even curing those already infected with this strain of swine flu. The more difficult question is: is there enough of these drugs stockpiled to deal with a full scale epidemic?

I’d guess the United States is no more than 20% ready. Already, as of 22h00 today, there are 44 cases reported in the U.S., 6 in Canada, 2 in the U.K., 14 confirmed out of 56 cases being investigated in New Zealand, 19 in Australia… and 149 dead in Mexico.

Meantime, any vaccine designed specifically to treat this particular strain won’t be ready for at least a month. It’s important to understand that even those currently vaccinated against the flu probably won’t be immunized. ((As reported by the Associated Press.)) However, again, drugs like Tamiflu should be able to deal with the situation for those already infected.

How can we protect ourselves?

By now you’ve probably seen the video of people in Mexico wearing masks, but those don’t do a lot to prevent viral transfer. Their purpose is mostly to keep already infected people from sneezing and coughing into the air uninfected people are breathing, thereby spreading the infection to others. There are better masks available (called “N-95” masks or respirators), ones with filters that will stop viruses from being transferred person to person… but the United States doesn’t have enough stockpiled. That was supposed to happen in 2003, but funding for such stockpiling has been removed from bills presented by both President Bush and President Obama. ((See this evaluation of what needs to be done, both now and for the future.))

Meantime, don’t panic! If you catch a cold or develop a new allergy, remember that swine influenza is a viral infection, which means it will trigger a fever. Should you develop a fever, by all means go to the hospital. Keep your hands clean. Be careful of exposure to others who are showing signs of illness. It’s important to know that the virus incubates for about three days before the first symptoms appear, so if you hear of friends who are getting sick (especially if they’ve been traveling lately, or are working or going to school with others who have traveled overseas), start monitoring your own condition.

It’s impossible to tell how far this will go. All will depend on the public’s own reaction, and how prepared the governments of the world are to deal with it once it reaches their own countries. It may be too late to close international travel, too, as I’m betting by tomorrow morning it will have been identified in Asia. (Spanish Flu was brought into some regions of Asia through travel from Australia, which is now looking at infections).

I once played an interesting online game called “Pandemic” (the new version is out now, it plays a little differently, I couldn’t get it to give me any points…) that was rather instructive. In this game, you are the virus. The object of the game is to infect the entire human population by “buying” mutations that make you increasingly contagious, virulent, and deadly. Ghoulish, I know, but it was pretty revealing.

A better version, called “The Great Flu“, is meant to be a more realistic model. You might find it instructive to play in order to figure out how this kind of thing works, and what we know to do about it. If you’re in a region of the world where you need to stay inside and away from other people, it won’t take your minds off your troubles, but it might help you decipher what it really means when government leaders tell you they are taking a particular action.

After all, knowledge is power.

Use the links below to get more information on the situation as it sits.

See also the CDC website for continuing details about the situation in the United States, and the Homeland Security website for security alerts and information related to this issue, as well as the United States Department of Health and Human Services website and the World Health Organization website.

Pandemic Flu/Avian Flu.gov logo

This entry was posted in Health & Wellness, world events, world events and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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