Update: The 2009/2010 H1N1 Swine Flu season is more severe than last year when I wrote this post, though the statistics haven’t shaken out yet. My current take is that while initial concerns may have been overblown we are *now* facing a fairly serious health risk and I’d encourage folks to take the vaccine when it’s available in your area. I’m actually optimistic that the *total deaths from flu* will go down this year as people are taking far greater precautions than usual.
You’ve got to hand it to the hype machine on this one for exaggerating the chances that the Swine Flu is going to get ya. I certainly understand why the CDC would be concerned that a new virus will spread and become dangerous, but the near-panic we’ve seen over the past week is simply not warranted by a reasonable interpretation of the data. I’m hardly a flu expert but it appears that the contagion, far from exploding, has been kept almost completely in check with only a handful of cases outside of the likely area of origin in Mexico and no rapid spread even in Mexico. It’s possible all the fear and masks have kept things in check but more likely this just isn’t that deadly a virus.
For example if we had followed all the precautions many are following *right now* by wearing masks, avoiding mass public activities, and obsessive hand washing the number of *regular* flu deaths would likely have been on the order of many thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, less than they were in the 2009 Flu season (which roughly corresponds to “winter” and takes on average about 36,000 lives each year in the USA alone based on the CDC data cited below.
I’m seeing some parallels with the hysterical responses to minor weather events which are often foolishly attributed to climate crisis when in fact they are simply minor changes in the weather. At least in the case of this flu there is an objectively identifiable new flu strain – H1N1, that *theoretically* could create massive trouble along the lines of the 1918 flu pandemic. That flu pandemic killed more people than any event with the possible exception of WWII depending on death toll estimates which generally fall between 50 million and 100 million for the flu. The “better documented” WWII death toll was about 73 million worldwide. Obviously this means that flu pandemics are of critical importance, but it’s also important to recognize that millions die every year from very easily preventable diseases like malaria and rotoviruses to which we have historically paid far too little attention.
In the USA WWII took about 400,000 lives while the 1918 Pandemic took about 500,000
So with 1 US death so far, and that I think from a victim sent to Texas from Mexico, we are looking at a death toll 1/500,000th as large as in 1918. Not sure that calls for the response we’ve seen so far.
Clearly the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic is nothing to sneeze at but I think it’s also clear that the 24 hour news and even the CDC – perhaps practicing for a real threat – have hyped this event out of proportion to the real threat. If that’s because the threat really, really cannot be known I supposed it’s fine, but if it’s because this type of thing keeps people focused in ways that are profitable to TV News or grant and funding producing for CDC I hope we take a close look at all this when it’s over. Although epidemiologists are probably going to say “better safe than sorry” with Pandemic alerts it’s also true that overhyped events can lead to a lax future response from a public that becomes too used to “crying wolf” when the threat is actually quite low.
The world currently faces several catastrophic health, poverty, and human rights crises in the developing world and will face more global crises in the coming decades – we don’t need more fake ones.
Prescription Report on Tamiflu, an antiviral treatment for Swine Flu. NO, you probably don’t need this drug!
CNN on flu hysteria as the “real problem”. Hey, talk about a two for one story here! Hype the flu news and then hype the hype about the flu news. However in this case I’m not sure TV News is to blame as the CDC and government folks have been quick to talk about “inevitable” pandemic and other statements that have led to much of the trouble. In fact I think we’re seeing the same challenge of bureaucratic interpretations here we see with global warming alarmism. There are often political and social penalties for bureaucrats who fail to identify major problems. There are *huge* rewards if you manage to convince grant and government funders that minor problems are major problems. Yet we don’t tend to punish folks for “exaggerating risks” which is part of the reason … we have a lot of exaggeration of catastrophic risk in our society and too little attention to “mundane” but real risks like normal flu deaths, gun deaths, and highways deaths which account for well over 100,000 dead each year. Add heart disease and cancer to the list – they are also largely preventable grim reapers – and you find we are under quiet attack 24/7 by deathly dangers that make the 9/11 toll look completely trivial by comparison.
Think about this – if we *knew* that a terror group was going to kill 100,000 Americans next year with an assault of viruses, guns, and car bombs there would be a near panic with calls for martial law or on the other end of the spectrum perhaps an armed revolution. But since these risks are less dramatic we don’t fret enough about them, while worrying far too much about swine flu and the terrorists who only rarely materialize and appear to rarely if ever pose a truly catastrophic risk. I would caveat this last point saying there are certainly terror groups out there that would consider catastrophic action and we certainly should seek to get them, but we always need to monitor the costs in terms of lives and money and compare this to alternatives.