Indianapolis, IN - May 4, 2009
As I write this, the swine flu epidemic is well on its way to being classified as a pandemic, having spread across from its apparent epicenter in Mexico throughout North America, to Europe, Asia, and beyond. In fact, it was confirmed just a short time ago that a student at Notre Dame has been the first confirmed case in Indiana.
Ive read a lot of information about this situation, and Ive participated in several water cooler discussions. It seems apparent that there are two possible competing points of view. Either you think this is likely to be one of the worst disasters to hit mankind in the history of the Universe; or you think the media has blown everything out of proportion to sell newspapers, increase viewership, and create mass hysteria as part of an evil plot of some sort. Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Before we all run off in a panic, it can be helpful to have a few facts about flu epidemics in general. Each year in the US, about 200,000 people are hospitalized by the flu and about 36,000 die from it. Since about 25% of people carrying the flu virus have no symptoms, we can surmise that the general mortality rate the number of people who die from the flu virus is exceedingly low, concentrating normally around the elderly.
This doesnt mean that the flu cant be deadly. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor in chief of Harvard Health Publications, the worst global pandemic in modern times was the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919. It affected about a third of the human race, and killed at least 40 million people in less than a year more than have been killed by AIDS in three decades. This death toll was so extreme that the average life expectancy around the world dropped for ten years.
While there are only 70 or so confirmed cases in the US at the moment, the numbers are certainly climbing. Whats concerning about this particular strain of flu is its apparent virility. Looking at the early statistics coming out of Mexico, it appears that the number of people dying from this particular strain is higher than normal.
On Monday, Associated Press Medical Writer Mike Stobbe fretted over statistics that showed about 70 deaths in Mexico out of roughly 1,000 reported cases. If accurate, these represent a fatality rate of about 7 percent. The 1918-1919 epidemic had a fatality rate of about 2.5 percent. While that sounds terrifying, its important to keep in mind that its way too early in the detection cycle to put a lot of faith in these numbers. Additionally, its likely that the number of infected is far greater than just 1,000. Still, there are some other disturbing signs to consider. Perhaps the most important is that nearly all those who died in Mexico were between the ages of 20 and 40. Health experts worry about a flu virus that kills healthy young adults, since it can be a harbinger of worse things to come. Generally, deaths from a normal flu strain occur among the very young and very old.
With information regarding the current situation changing on a daily, even hourly, basis, its important to stay abreast of events. The Centers for Disease Control is working hard to keep people informed, including broadcasting updates via Twitter (To follow these updates, visit twitter.com/CDCemergency) and posting regular updates on their web site. Both this link and the Harvard Health site offer simple, common sense tips to help protect yourself and your loved ones from catching this and other infectious diseases. Advice that we would all be wise to follow.
Perhaps the most interesting way to track the progress is with Google Maps. With this tool, you can view a map of the world with cases (both confirmed and suspected) visually labeled for quick identification. The map contains a handy legend and is updated in near-real-time with the latest information. With the ability to zoom in and out and see the entire world at a glance and have the information rapidly updated it provides a very clear and suggestive picture of what we might be up against. View the map.