Thursday, September 17, 2009

We're Getting Hysterical Over The Swine Flu, But That Might Not Be A Bad Thing

If you have just awakened from a long nap or have been hiding out in a cave, you are forgiven if you think the swine flu is the greatest threat to public health since the last U.S. bubonic plague epidemic in 1925.

This is because the swine flu (known as H1N1 in epidemiological parlance) has been hyped beyond all perspective after a small number of cases and an even smaller number of deaths last year when compared to previous flu outbreaks.

As it is, H1N1 is relatively mild although it can have a high infection rate and be a killer. But it is no more deadly than other familiar strains of influenza, and the fatalities typically are folks already at high risk, including the elderly and people suffering from asthma, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and weakened immune systems.

What may be a cause for concern is that in some people the swine flu apparently digs deeper into the lungs and damages the alveoli, the structures in the lung that deliver oxygen to the blood. This in turn can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, which leaves people gasping for breath and can be fatal.

There is a vaccine for swine flu as there are for the other more common strains, but the recommended treatment if you are stricken is the same: Over-the-counter Motrin, Tylenol or other anti-inflammatory medications.

While getting vaccinated may wise for high-risk folks and is recommended for toddlers through age 18, an Australian study has showed that using soap and water or a hand sanitizer virtually eliminated the presence of H1N1, which may require a change in behavior in a culture that emphasizes quick fixes.

What makes the swine flu different are the social implications.

The public loves a good disease, and the swine-flu outbreak in Mexico in early 2009, later declared to be a pandemic as it spread globally, received the same kind of breathless media coverage given major weather events and American Idol winners. When several University of Delaware students contracted H1N1, a parking lot near the campus student health center filled with television news satellite trucks. Never mind that all of the students quickly recovered.

There are other implications, as well, that aren't getting coverage.

It has been 40 years since the last extensive flu epidemic in the U.S., and unlike the 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu outbreak, a whole lot more young kids are in day care because their mothers work and if there is another sizable outbreak during the coming flu season, infection rates could soar.

On the other hand, there is a greater awareness thanks to that breathless coverage. The library where I work is now chockablock with hand sanitizer stations, while the keyboards of the public computers are wiped regularly with a disinfectant.

Then there's this: Wal-Mart, among other retailers, is offering swine-flu vaccinations at cut-rate prices. Howcum we can't go to Wal-Mart for all of our vaccination needs instead of costly doctors' office visits?

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The swine flu is thought to have originated during the mother of all pandemics -- the 1918 flu outbreak, which struck about 1 billion people, or nearly half of the planet's population, and killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people depending on who did the counting.

In contrast, the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed an estimated 1 million people, while the only other 20th century pandemic of note, the 1956-1958 Asian flu outbreak which laid me low as a youth, killed an estimated 2 million. The swine flu pandemic that began in Mexico early this year is technically still ongoing with a mere 3,700 deaths to date.

Feel better? You should. Just remember to wash your hands regularly.

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