Apr 26, 2009
We;ve been told to forget avian influenza, it seemed that swine flu that could ravage the world as Mexicans were warned not to shake hands in church was the next bad thing. Large public gatherings, such as sporting events and concerts, were banned and schools closed, but international travel to Mexico has not been banned, is swine flu yet more media hype and scaremongering to distract us from the economic recession?
As I’ve discussed previously on Sciencebase, there are countless latent diseases in hosts as rodents, birds, and cattle lying ready and willing to make the species leap to humans and decimate our populations. Whereas for the last ten years or so bird flu has been the focus of much research and worry it was always more likely that a potentially lethal strain of virus would emerge from another species and not necessarily in Asia.
Now, swine flu is on the rise in Mexico and already taking the first inroads into the USA just across the border. It’s supposedly killed more than 150 people in Mexico city and made thousands ill. However, not all those deaths have been definitively associated with swine flu, which means the mortality rate could be as low as 1% or as high as 6.5% depending on how you count.
Should we be worried?
In a word? No. While some observers are suggesting serious caution others are advising that there is no reason for real concern yet. We are not quite at the danger levels of even the worldwide SARS epidemic and certainly not close to the Spanish flu pandemic that really did ravage the population in 1918-9.
Is the WHO scaremongering too?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Mexican/US swine flu outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern”. It moved us to a Phase IV alert and then a Phase V alert and told us that the disease could no longer be contained. However, as things are panning out it would seem that this latest emergent virus is not even as bad as the common seasonal flu that kills tens of thousands of people every year.
What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a type A influenza virus present in pigs. It’s a subtype of H1N1. Human infection is usually uncommon except among people who work and live closely with pigs.
What is unusual about the present strain?
The new strain is a hybrid of swine, human and avian flu viruses and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it can spread from human to human but the level of virulence is not yet clear. UPDATE: It is not proving to be particularly virulent and outside the poverty zones of Mexico City it is not demonstrating lethality. Most people are recovering.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are similar to regular human flu: fever and chills, a cough, sore throat, aching limbs, headaches, and general malaise. However, there are reports of swine flu also causing diarrhoea and vomiting. Pneumonia and respiratory failure can occur leading to death as also happens in regular human flu, which kills thousands of people every year.
Are there warning signs in children?
Children having trouble breathing, being averse to drinking, lethargy not waking up or not interacting, being so irritable that the child does not want to beheld, flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough, fever with a rash.
Are there any drugs to treat swine flu?
Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) are the possible pharmaceutical frontline defence and are proving effective in treating patients diagnosed early enough. There is as yet no vaccine. It takes several months to create a flu vaccine and any such vaccine will be effective against only the specific strain for which it was created. By the time we have a vaccine the virus may have either died out (most likely) or evolved into a different strain resistant to the vaccine.
Has the disease spread to the USA?
Cases in California, Texas, and Kansas, have been confirmed and tests are being carried out on students at a school in New York. Cases have been seen in New Zealand, Spain, Scotland, and elsewhere; those infected have been recovering well.
How can we prevent the spread of swine flu?
People at risk should cover their mouth when they cough. They should regularly wash their hands with an alcohol-based cleaner and and avoid close contact with the sick. Patients with the disease should stay at home. There is no need to avoid eating pork.
Will there be a global flu epidemic?
“We do not know whether this swine flu virus or some other influenza virus will lead to the next pandemic,” says, Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, “However, scientists around the world continue to monitor the virus and take its threat seriously.” UPDATE: the WHO raised its alert level from Phase IV to V, but we seem to be no closer to a full-blown pandemic than we were at the beginning of this debacle.
Will there be a second wave?
One of two outcomes are being forecast, this rather poorly virulent strain will continue spreading slowly but ultimately die out, thanks to a combination of low virulence and monitoring and isolation of outbreaks, or it will mutate into something more nastier and bring with it a fast-spreading and more lethal wave of influenza. Thankfully, in the Northern hemisphere, we are heading into summer and influenza viruses do not spread as efficiently in the summer as they do in the winter. My hunch is that this H1N1 strain of swine flu will die out and the media hype with it over the next two to three weeks.
It is impossible to predict what virus will emerge from which host, there are countless different types of pathogen lying dormant in the countless different mammals across the globe. No one predicted SARS, AIDS, Ebola, West Nile virus, or swine flu. This time, health agencies have responded well and although the WHO is saying it is now impossible to “contain” swine flu, it seems that the inflammatory headlines have died down and millions are NOT going to die of this disease.
Is this a wake-up call?
At the very least this swine flu outbreak should wake us all up to either getting the dust off our (bird flu) pandemic plans (as the response is the same) or getting started with putting them together. This includes both businesses and individuals. If the outbreak dies out quickly and this turns out not to be the next global pandemic then we can be sure another strain will try to be at some point in the future. Pandemic preparedness for businesses should now be at the forefront of every business manager’s mind.
Cyberchondria is an anxiety disorder related to hyperchondria and brought on by reading too many tweets with the #swineflu tag, listening to conspiracy theorists, and viewing online news stories about diseases that scare the sheesh kebab out of you for no good reason.