Before I begin, let me just make some things clear, I am NOT denying that swine flu presents a significant potential threat nor am I suggesting that governments and health organisations should not be taking steps to prepare for the worse case scenarios. I’m also not suggesting that taking reasonable precautions is a bad idea or that we shouldn’t feel deep sympathy for the folks who are effected or have died from this illness. All Clear? Right let’s move on.
With that cleared up, what I want to discuss is the problem I’ve noticed with some of the media reports on swine flu, namely, how the media seems to be, intentionally or unintentionally, fuelling unnecessary panic amongst the public. They are doing this by using alarmist headlines and presenting swine flu as a deadly menace that could strike anyone, anywhere in the world, at any minute, which the current evidence simply does not support.
Now, in case there was any doubt I am definitely not an expert on infectious diseases or pandemic outbreaks and as such my opinion should be taken with the requisite pinch of salt. However, the hysteria currently being whipped up by the media seems to me to be eerily familiar to the kind of mass panic that occurred a few years back with SARS and more recently with the bird flu.
It’s not that these diseases do not pose real dangers, they do. The point is that the amount of fear that reports whip up amongst the general public over these issues, especially in the Western world, was and is completely disproportionate to the actual risk of catching anything that the public have so far faced.
Consider the following statistics (which are taken from the World Health Organisation website):
- Every year 250,000 – 500,000 die worldwide from regular strains of influenza (the flu). See the stats here.
- The total number of confirmed cases of bird flu since 2003 is 421 and the total number of deaths recorded is 257. Making an average of around 50 fatal cases a year worldwide. See the stats here.
- The total number of confirmed cases of SARS during the outbreak from 1st Nov 2002 to 31st July 2003 was 8096 and the total number of deaths recorded was 775 worldwide. See the stats here.
- The total number of confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide is 244 with the total number of confirmed deaths numbering 20 at the time of writing and all being in Mexico (the 152 figure being quoted in most reports is for deaths from ‘influenza-like illnesses’ but with no labratory confirmation that the new swine flu strain was responsible). See the stats here.
I list these figures not to downplay the potential threat that these outbreaks represent- in fact such figures could be used to illustrate just how effective containment programs are- instead, I am listing them to make it clear that the risk of catching the avian flu, swine flu or SARS and dieing from them are, at present, astronomically small when compared to the risk posed by the mundane strains of influenza which kill tens of thousands of people in every country, every year. This is especially the case for folks lucky enough to be living in countries with well developed medical services such as the US or the UK.
So far this outbreak of swine flu has lead to no fatalities outside of Mexico, despite there being around 60-70 confirmed cases of the illness in other countries. And even restricting the analysis to the worst effected country -Mexico- and accepting the higher figure of 152 deaths (which will grow) it needs to be kept in mind that the population of Mexico is around 109 million. As such, an individual in Mexico would still need to be spectacularly unlucky to contract the illness and even more unlucky to die from it. This could change if the virus spreads more widely but recent reports have shown that cases have been decreasing not increasing.
In the UK the issue is even more clear cut. 2 cases out of a population of 60 million and no fatalities. Winning the lottery is currently more likely in the UK than dieing from swine flu. Let me illustrate my point with some examples; the Metro a free London paper ran with the headline “Pandemic could kill up to 120m, warn experts” this figure seems to have been arrived at by working out how many would be likely to die if the entire world population contracted the illness (as discussed by sense about science) which has never and will never happen.
And it is not simply low quality media that are using alarmist tactics, the current headline on the BBC website reads “More countries confirm swine flu: Cases of the deadly swine flu virus are confirmed as far afield as New Zealand and Israel as the UN warns it cannot be contained“. Now although technically none of the information is incorrect this headline gives the impression that we are on the verge of worldwide disaster which again is not exactly what the evidence is showing.
Deadly virus? Cannot be contained? This really sounds bad! But hold on let’s consider this. The virus has yet to prove deadly outside of Mexico and as for not being contained let’s remember we are still talking about a handful of cases outside of America & Mexico and again no fatalities! Also, look at some quotes from experts discussing the risk in another less prominent article on the BBC website:
Professor John Oxford a virology expert says:
…this swine flu worries me less because as a population we have a basic immunity to H1N1. Outside of Mexico there have been no deaths, so it doesn’t seem so aggressive.
And not only are we coming up to the summer, which makes it less likely for these viruses to spread as well, but Britain has enough antiviral drugs for half of the population.
So we should not panic in any way. This does not look as though it is going to be a virus that sweeps the world and causes huge mortality.
Dr. Alan MacNally a molecular biology expert said:
The key thing is how lethal a virus is it. Outside of Mexico it has not caused any deaths, which is good news. And we are prepared for it.
Keith Plumb, a fellow of the institution of chemical engineers said:
Let’s keep things in perspective. This is not 1918; and with over 30 million doses of antiviral treatments, effective against H1N1 available in the UK right now we are well placed to combat any outbreak.
So the long and short of it? I personally think that the current evidence does not support the atmosphere of panic that surrounds this topic, especially if you live outside of Mexico. I may turn out to be wrong and I’m sure many would disagree with my assessment (feel free to leave comments explaining why) but personally I think that, at least as things stand at the minute, the evidence does not support taking anything more than typical vigilance against catching a flu virus i.e. wash your hands, dispose carefully of tissues, get flu vaccines if you are elderly or have a compromised immune system and so on.
The evidence really does not provide any reason for folks living outside of Mexico to be particularly worried since the chances of catching the illness are millions to one against and even if you were so unlucky to catch it at present the survival rate, outside of Mexico, is 100%. It’s always possible that with new information the situation could change to something very different but judging from the present information, swine flu really just doesn’t seem like something worth getting hysterical about. In summary I think the following advice is the most sensible course of action: