Swine Flu Update

swine-flu-leafletSwine flu (H1N1) information leaflets are being delivered to households across the UK today. I suspect they do nothing but increase fear and confuse people, especially as the WHO/UN are about to lower the swine flu alert level.

In the UK, 27 people now have the virus, with 23 in England and four in Scotland and the first P2P transmission in the UK has been reported. But, what happened to the thousands, if not millions, affected we were warned of by the media and government and WHO and UN over the last few weeks? It just hasn’t happened, thankfully.

The leaflets will, of course, explain exactly what is swine flu (I wonder whether they will explain why we now have to call it H1N1 though), who is most at risk, what are the symptoms, and what people can do to reduce their risk of catching the disease.

There was a panic on Monday when the WHO was set to raise the alert level, but it didn’t happen they are maintaining it at Phase V, one below the red alert Phase VI, and may lower the panic level in coming days.

I suspect that the average person reading the government leaflet will disregard it as contradictory with what they are now hearing in the news. They may also see it as simply yet another kneejerk reaction from politicians who always to pander to the media biases rather than making their own scientifically informed decisions.

In my original swine flu article, I rather flippantly advised readers to forget avian influenza and to switch their worries to pigs. But, there was a serious thought behind my silliness because a single disease should not be the focus of fear. Emergent diseases could appear in almost any host animal at any time and cross the species barrier through random mutation.

Indeed, it’s certainly not only pigs, birds, and humans, that catch flu. Horses, and even whales and seals, get a form of the disease. But influenza is not the only virus.

If a second wave of swine flu does not evolve in the Northern autumn this year, there’s no reason to assume that some other respiratory virus, perhaps akin to SARS, perhaps avian, or something entirely different will appear. Will we be prepared for the onset of a previously unknown respiratory, or other, infection spreading from some obscure mammal in central Asia or elsewhere? Or, will the media incite mass hysteria through scaremongering once again?

How will a swine flu pamphlet look in six months time? Confusing and useless, that’s how. The scaremongering that has gone way beyond any seen at the time of SARS and certainly way beyond the avian influenza concerns, will ultimately look like a story of “cry wolf” when the next virus emerges.

The WHO told us a week or two ago that we could no longer contain swine flu, but as it turns out there really was no need to contain it in the first place. It appears (in this wave) not to be as virulent as first feared, mortality rates even in Mexico City are far lower than one would have expected of a serious illness with the number of dead from H1N1 being revised downwards several times already.

Flu experts from Cambridge, the National Institutes of Health, and The Cleveland Clinic will be talking about the science behind the news of the swine flu outbreak at a free webinar on Friday.

All that said, the UK’s chief medic Liam Donaldson, has warned against complacency because flu viruses can change character “very rapidly”. It is too early to assume the swine flu outbreak is a mild infection just because no-one in the UK has died, he says.

For years we have been warned that a lethal flu pandemic to match the Spanish Flu of 1918 was long overdue. Birds, and now pigs, have so far failed to deliver, but what’s that unidentified, flea-bitten rodent running around the market square? Is the tiny creature the harbinger of doom? Will we ever conquer infectious disease?

Research Blogging IconO’Dowd, A. (2009). Confirmation of first person to person transmission of swine flu in UK expected soon BMJ, 338 (may01 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b1838

12 thoughts on “Swine Flu Update”

  1. If this round of pig flu is indeed fizzling out, it’s been a worthwhile drill for the international public health sector. And it’s flushed out a lot of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists.

  2. Now that Rupert Grint has come down with a case of swine flu, I think it’s attracting even more attention than before (I didn’t think it previously possible..).

    People really need to relax.

  3. @Barnaby Thanks for your input. You’re right that link didn’t bear up to scrutiny. However, the BBC did report that the WHO was, at the time set to lower the Phase. I didn’t intend to imply that SARS was a false alarm, just an early warning of what might happen when a truly virulent and contagious disease emerged. In the meantime, AIDS and malaria continue to kill millions. Moreover, I don’t think I concluded that swine flu would not become a pandemic, just that it could go either way and we might ultimately see a second wave of infection during the Northern autumn/winter of an evolved version of this virus. In the meantime, should we be partying like it’s the end of the world – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/world/americas/07party.html?hp

    Oh, one more thing…where’s the evidence that this virus did any host jumping? Isn’t it a mish-mash of pig, bird and human viruses…it could have been hosted anywhere…

  4. You link to an article which you claim gives reason to believe the WHO may lower its alert level. But the detail of the article does not support this. I think its unlikely they’ll lower this level unless swine flu disapeers from either the US or Mexico (and there are no epidemics in the southern hemisphere). Indeed it seems more likely that a full scale pandemic will be announced in the next month or two as countries in the southern hemisphere comes into their flu seasons.

    The mass media routinely scare monger with regards to terrorism, paedophilia and a multitude of other utterly minor risks. The risk of a swine flu pandemic is not insignificant and deserves the level of attention that the media gave it.

    You imply that SARS was a false alarm. It was not. It was a successful containment of a new and deadly disease by the WHO that without action could have become a serious epidemic or more. The scale of the media reaction to SARS helped in defeating it and we shouldn’t deride it. The scare over bird flu was useful in strengthening our preparations for the next pandemic (whether swine flu or otherwise). It is the nature of pandemics that there will be the occasional threat that does not turn into a pandemic. These occur infrequently enough that it is worth reacting to them as we would to a pandemic. In addition it must be recognised that as we currently have no practical way to tell which threats will become pandemics that we must react to all of them or be unprepared for the next pandemic.

    I see no reason to conclude that swine flu won’t become a pandemic. Firstly the northern hemisphere has come out of its flu season so we shouldn’t expect any epidemics there. Secondly the southern hemisphere is only just coming into its flu season so we should not expect epidemics there yet in any case. Thirdly serious pandemics take time to build up and this disease has only just jumped host.

    In conclusion your comments are premature and it is too early to drop our guard. The probability of a swine flu pandemic may be lower than it seemed but its still significant and shouldn’t be trivialized.

  5. If there was not a truck wreck near Fort Bliss Texas a few weeks ago and the trucks were not coming from Monterey Mexico with a load of Genetic altered Bio-Hard Material, truck overturned and released BIO-Hazard at the Border as I understand it., Lot’s of Gossip going on with the exception of the PEOPLE WHO WORKED ON THE LOAD GOT SICK with the FLU. And why are they at Fort Bliss TX?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????in the hospital.

    The only conspiracy theorists are the ones who dream this up not the ones who get sick.

    Dr. John M. Browning III

  6. You’re telling me! My original swine flu post has about 200 comments that I upmoderated but at least three times that number in spammers and incoherent conspiracy theorists that really didn’t warrant approval.

  7. If this round of pig flu is indeed fizzling out, it’s been a worthwhile drill for the international public health sector. And it’s flushed out a lot of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists.

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