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So It's a Pandemic - Now What?

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So It's a Pandemic - Now What?

Website exclusive - WHO names Swine Flu a Level 6 pandemic. Has anything changed?

For a while there, swine flu (to be politically correct, the “novel influenza A (H1N1) virus”) was all we heard about and then it dropped off the radar. Without much attention, the virus did what viruses do; it continued to spread and infect people throughout the U.S. and the world resulting, to date (June 19), in over 24,000 U.S. cases and 87 deaths. With swine flu reported in over 70 countries worldwide, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on June 11.


Has anything changed in the initial information we learned about swine flu? Yes, greater information is available (for example, the first case of recombined H1N1 virus (carrying genes from swine, birds and humans) was identified in a case in Sheboygan, Wisconsin… in 2005) but nothing has changed to the point to suggest you should be locking yourself into those duct-taped, plastic rooms so enamored of the Homeland Security Department not so many years ago.


So what does the ‘global pandemic’ designation actually mean when it’s home watching television? Simply that the virus has been implicated in ongoing, community-level outbreaks throughout the world.


Swine flu is demonstrating the weaknesses in the WHO’s pandemic reporting procedure, weaknesses explained in depth in science writer Laurie Garrett’s excellent piece “When is a pandemic not a pandemic?” (read it here)


In short, the WHO’s pandemic threat is based on transmissibility, but for the folks at home looking forward to 4th of July crowds, summer barbeques and fun at the beach with thousands of other funsters, what the virus does to you if you get it is just as important.


Swine flu has shown it can transmit itself from one infected person to another – its reproductive number (based on the cases in Mexico) is 1.4. That means for every person infected, it can be estimated another 1.4 people will be infected by them in turn. This is not a particularly scary number (measles, for example – remember measles? – has a reproductive number between 12 and 18) as long as the virus you’re exposed to is relatively benign.


Does swine flu qualify? Currently, Garrett calls it a “wimpy” virus, and in U.S. medical parlance, it barely rates mention as a Category 1 infection, “Category 1” being the lowest category available. That won’t be much consolation to the families of those who have already died from this flu, but if current numbers hold true, swine flu is not even as lethal as the normal flu that makes its rounds every fall and winter.


The concern, of course, is that the numbers won’t hold true – that this virus will do the other thing that viruses do – grab genes from a more lethal virus as it makes its way around the world. Again, Garrett gives a wonderfully detailed yet understandable explanation of this in an article for Newsweek – “The Path of a Pandemic.” (Read it here).


So what to do about your summer fun? The same things you were advised to do before:


  • Panic.
  • Stock up on antivirals (I keep hearing that advice, but I have to wonder, how are people managing to stock up on something available by prescription only? Are there really that many unethical doctors out there?)
  • Avoid pork (or chicken) products (except for the avoidance anyone with half a brain exercises with corporate food).
  • Spread your virus if you happen to become ill. Stay home if you’re sick.


  • Look for information from trusted sources. This is not your next-door neighbor. Visit the websites of your local health department, the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization  for accurate information and follow their advice. The priority for these organizations is to reduce any pandemic threat – even at low virulence (87 deaths out of 21,449 infections) if enough people get sick, the death rate will rise. In addition, the low death rate may be related, in part, to appropriate treatment – and there are not enough antivirals in stock to treat everyone.
  • Seek medical help if you believe you are ill with the flu where symptoms worsen after several days.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Sneeze into your arm, not into the air or your hands where your germs can spread.




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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

health, flu, pandemic, H1N1, swine flu

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