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Swine Flu: No Big Deal?

May 03, 2009 07:30 AM
by Cara McDonough
As reports of new cases increase, the media has become saturated with stories about a possible epidemic. But so far, the swine flu numbers aren’t even close to a season of typical influenza.

In Deaths, Typical Flu Season Outnumbers Swine Flu (So Far)

This week the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the swine flu pandemic alert level to 5, meaning that all countries should begin preparedness plans for a potential pandemic.

The warning sounds scary, especially when there’s so much confusing information circulating about the subject. But some scientists are now saying that the swine flu—or H1N1 influenza A—won’t be as deadly as once thought; in fact, it may not even be as fatal as the usual flu outbreaks that occur each winter.

The current numbers say a lot. As of Thursday, the number of swine flu cases in the United States rose to 118 across 15 states, Agence France-Presse reports, and one person has died.
According to the Los Angles Times, the regular flu—whatever strain is prevalent that year—affects between 5 and 20 percent of the United States population each year, and about 36,000 people die, a mortality rate of between 0.06 and 0.24 percent. Although the swine flu outbreak certainly has not played itself out, it's clear that the numbers of cases and deaths would have to soar before it approached the severity of an average run-of-the-mill flu season.

"Let's not lose track of the fact that the normal seasonal influenza is a huge public health problem that kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone and hundreds of thousands around the world," Dr. Christopher Olsen, a molecular virologist who studies swine flu at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. He added that any death is “heartbreaking,” but that we “do need to keep this in perspective.”

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Background: Comparing swine flu to past pandemics

It’s easy to compare swine flu to past flu outbreaks, particularly the Spanish influenza of 1918, which killed millions around the world. The two have striking similarities: They both began in the spring and have mostly been reported in healthy adults.

The comparison gives rise to troubling conclusions. For instance, the 1918 influenza was mild when it first appeared, seeming to be nothing more than the common cold to some victims. But then the flu seemed to mutate, reemerging in the fall as a lethal and ruthless pandemic.

Opinion & Analysis: The nature of a pandemic

Could the same occur with today’s swine flu? Maybe, but most likely not, Peter Palese, a microbiologist and influenza expert at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, told the Los Angeles Times. "There are certain characteristics, molecular signatures, which this virus lacks," he said. Most importantly, the swine flu lacks an amino acid that could increase the number of virus particles in the lungs, making the disease more lethal.

According to the story, scientists have identified a number of other differences between the swine flu and the 1918 flu, “but the significance of those differences is still unclear.”

Still, writes Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist, swine flu has always had the capacity to become a pandemic, due to its “rapid evolution.” She suggests that researchers should have paid more attention to its threat before now. “All the evidence suggests that swine flu was a disaster waiting to happen,” MacKenzie writes. But the virus received little attention, “perhaps because it caused mild infections in people which didn’t spread. Now one swine flu virus has stopped being so well-behaved.”

Two different teams of researchers have estimated that in a worst-case scenario, there would be about 1,700 cases of the H1N1 flu in the U.S. over the next four weeks, LiveScience reports. The analyses cannot predict, however, how deadly the virus could become.

Related Topic: Don’t call it the swine flu

Although the habit may be difficult to break, WHO announced Thursday that it would stop using the term “swine flu” because it poses a danger for pigs. The announcement came just a day after thousands of pigs were slaughtered in Egypt in an effort to avoid swine flu. WHO says pigs pose no threat because the virus is being spread through human-to-human contact, not from contact with infected pigs.

Instead, the agency said it would begin calling the flu by its technical name: H1N1 influenza A.

The World Organization for Animal Health in Paris said in a statement on Thursday that "there is no evidence of infection in pigs, nor of humans acquiring infection directly from pigs." Still, many countries have instituted precautionary measures involving pigs. China, Russia, Ukraine and other nations, for instance, banned pork exports from Mexico and parts of the United States, due to fears of swine flu.

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