Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?
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Once we get past perinatal deaths and deaths from congenital conditions, the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. is motor vehicle crashes (7,677 in 2003). The second leading cause? Murder (3,001). So influenza isn't exactly a major scourge of children.
As of now, there is no evidence that this new strain of H1N1 flu is any more dangerous than ordinary flu. Evidently the Mexican authorities thought it might be, but it is not clear why. It has not been reported that there was an unusual number of people showing up in Mexican hospitals with flu until after the government whipped up major publicity about the outbreak, nor is there any evidence as yet that the fatality rate from this strain was unusually high in Mexico. It definitely is not anywhere else.
In Mexico, and all over the world, the amount and nature of flu activity at this moment is completely normal. The number of cases is not unusual, and the number of severe cases or fatalities is not unusual. The only thing that's unusual is that laboratory analysis identifies the strain of flu that some people have as a novel one. That's all.
Now that we have widespread surveillance systems in place, and laboratory tests that can rapidly analyze genetic sequences of viruses, we could make this observation. The fact is, if this had happened 10 years ago, nobody would have noticed it, at least not yet, and the way it's looking to me right now, they probably never would. Comparable events have undoubtedly happened many times over the decades -- a new strain of flu emerging near the end of the season -- and we just never knew it.
Public-health authorities have a responsibility to be vigilant and to prevent bad stuff from happening if they can. Since novel strains of influenza might, in principle, be unusually dangerous, they look for them and try to a) stop them from spreading if they can, and b) prepare for the worst in case they can't. That's their job.
They have various technical terms and policies they resort to based on their careful planning. For example, they may declare a "public health emergency" in one or another jurisdiction. Nationally, here in the United States, that just means that relevant government agencies assign staff and line up resources to take certain actions in case they are needed, such as shipping stockpiles of drugs to particular locations.
A "pandemic" just means an epidemic that is very widespread. A pandemic can refer to a minor disease. Actually it's technically correct to say that there is a pandemic of one or more strains of influenza every year, but the WHO doesn't bother to use that term unless they consider the pathogen to be particularly problematic.
In this case, they have issued a pandemic alert because they consider it likely that this novel strain will be transmitted from one person to another in many places around the world. That doesn't mean anything unusually bad will necessarily happen. It's just a term of art. They want to be ready.
So the authorities, for the most part, haven't overreacted. They've just done what they are supposed to do. It is possible, but not at all likely, that this virus will cause an unusual amount of trouble.
It is much more likely that it will fade away in a couple of weeks, because the flu season is nearly over, and there is no evidence that there is anything unusual about the way this virus behaves. It might re-emerge in the fall, as a component of ordinary seasonal flu; or it might re-emerge as something more virulent, but by that time we'll have a vaccine in mass production. So everybody needs to chill.