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H1N1 Just Isn't That Scary: Why There's No Reason to Go Overboard with Swine Flu Hysteria

Just a few years ago, we wouldn't have known there was a "swine flu."

With the media pumping out story after fevered story of a unique and "deadly" new strain of influenza sweeping the globe -- tossing words like "pandemic" around with little in the way of context -- you'd have to be a Vulcan not to experience just a touch of panic. But is this flu really so scary?

Any virus that's new to the human population poses a potential danger. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the swine flu quasi-panic is, if it had emerged just a few short years ago, we would have gone about our lives without any sense that anything unusual was even under way.

After all, millions of people around the world get the flu each year, and tens of thousands die as a result -- most of them very old or very young or people whose immune systems are already compromised.

The vast majority of people who catch a case of flu feel like crap for a few days or a week, and then they recover.  So far, the swine flu is no different -- it's not particularly virulent, nor is it deadlier than the strains commonly referred to as "seasonal flu" (although Mexican authorities initially thought it was for reasons that are not entirely clear).

Viruses mutate, intermingle with other strains and adapt, and the H1N1 flu is a new one -- a "zoonotic" virus that has leaped from pigs to humans. So it’s always possible that the swine flu could become a genuinely dangerous phenomenon.

But so far there’s no evidence to indicate that that’s a likely scenario. In fact, researchers at the University of Maryland conducted a study that concluded the swine flu is less likely to recombine with other strains; the Los Angeles Times reported that the results should ease "fears that the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus will … mutate into a more lethal form."

And if the swine flu -- H1N1 -- had hit just 10 short years ago, we would not have gone about our lives as if nothing was amiss. It's only due to stepped up efforts to screen for viruses after the SARS and "avian flu" scares, and our relatively new ability to quickly (and inexpensively) determine a virus’s genome, that we know something other than the so-called "seasonal flu" exists at all. 

None of this has prevented the media from engaging in a full-blown Y2K-style panic. Every time a new case of flu is identified as being caused by the H1N1 strain, every time an unfortunate person dies of it, every time a public health official releases a new statistic about its spread or a school is shut down, a media feeding frenzy has followed.

It's true that the H1N1 strain has displayed a few unusual characteristics. There have been fewer lethal cases among infants and more among non-elderly adults than one would expect based on our experience with other strains of influenza. But looking at its impact on the population as a whole, the H1N1 virus has in no way proved to be more dangerous than the seasonal flu. 

Rarely is the actual threat posed by swine flu put into any statistical context.

So consider this: According to the European Center for Disease Control, there have been 4,092 confirmed deaths from swine flu around the world through Sept. 1. ("Confirmed" deaths is a dubious figure, but I’ll use it for the sake of argument.)

If the same rate were to hold out for the rest of the year, that number would grow to 6,138 for 2009. That would mean you'd have approximately four times the chance of getting killed by a lightning strike (in an average year), and would be 200 times more likely to die in a car crash than to succumb to the swine flu. (Actually, this underestimates the likelihood of dying in a car crash, because anyone can catch a virus but not everyone gets around in a motor vehicle.)

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