Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Early Post-Mortem on the Mexican Swine Flu

I've done quite a bit of reading on the recent swine flu, and I've come to some educated but unscientific conclusions. I share them with you because I think they run counter to the general coverage right now but I also think they are accurate.

First, the way this story evolved, this particular flu strain looked terrifying. We were getting reports of deaths from Mexico that were growing at a high rate to the number of confirmed cases that were being reported. It has seemed terrifying at times. Almost too terrifying to be believable. The death rate appeared to be incredibly high compared to even the 1918 influenza. But what we were probably seeing was an anomaly in the data collection. This flu has probably been spreading for over a month, possibly well over a month, but it wasn't being identified as anything other than a typical flu virus.

At some point, deaths in Mexico lead to the actual virus being identified. The new and unique nature of the virus led to a natural alarm, and attention immediately went to the cases where death occurred. Because of that increased attention to the cases where flu deaths occurred, those numbers began to rise at a faster rate than reported cases where recovery happened. As the focus shifted to containment because of the fear generated by the increases in deaths, we naturally began identifying more and more cases of this flu. Most of these cases appeared to be serious, so as this number has expanded, it has seemed to confirm suspicions that we were facing a deadly pandemic. But that may have neglected another part of this picture, and that is that many, many more people have probably been infected but the infection has been so mild that they A) Never sought treatment, B) May not have even thought it was the flu, perhaps even confusing their symptoms for that of a bad cold, and C) May have even been asymptomatic.

Two important pieces of information have appeared in the past couple of days, and as the tidal wave of this story has rolled on, I think they have been under reported. The first is reports that the confirmed death toll in Mexico may actually be lower than what we've been hearing. The second is reports from the scientific field that this virus appears to be no more deadly than the typical seasonal flu virus. If true, both of these pieces of data would indicate this panic was created by data collection that started with the most serious instance, cases that resulted in death, and worked backwards to the least serious, which would be cases so mild as to go unreported.

In all likelihood, this flu virus will be out of the news loop in two weeks. Many of us will be asking the question "how the hell did this virus become a panic," and I think it is going to be some variation of the above.

One other thing on the news coverage of this. I've been seeing more and more reporting that holds up the example of the 1918 flu that started mild in the spring and became deadly that fall as what we have to look forward to. This is lazy, fear mongering journalism that relies on the false belief that history repeats itself exactly. Could this flu come back more deadly in the fall? Perhaps, but it will likely be worked into next winter's flu shots. Unless it makes a radical genetic change, that vaccine will likely go a long way to tempering any increase in lethality. And remember, in 1918, we did not have the benefit of a vaccination routine. Additionally, the 'history repeats itself' model is incredibly irresponsible as the likelihood that this virus would follow the exact route of the 1918 virus is more remote than you buying a Powerball ticket and winning this weekend.

So, long story short, you can probably direct your worries in other directions. This flu is going to be looked back upon as much ado about nothing.

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