A vaccine needed for bad statistics

April 28, 2009

ericauchard1- Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

If you look no further than the latest headlines, you might think a worldwide flu pandemic was already underway with a very real threat to millions of lives.

While there are many unanswered questions early on in the outbreak of flu from Mexico, it is crucial to remember that the number of deaths and reported infections remain small — even if its spread across the globe has proved worryingly rapid.

While the infected need access to medical care and anti-viral drugs, the rest of the world needs an inoculation against scary statistics and misinformation.

The Internet Age allows facts and rumour to spread almost instantaneously. But knowing of outbreaks across the globe must not be confused with risks of catching the disease.

Already in this outbreak, Lebanon’s health minister has called for a halt to the national custom of greeting one another with kisses. Several countries including Russia and China have banned pork imports from Mexico and parts of the United States in the belief that meat could spread the flu.

So far, up to 149 are reported to have died of swine flu in Mexico. The World Health Organisation has upgraded the level of pandemic threat to four on a scale of six — sustained human-to-human transmission. Stage five signals an “imminent” pandemic.

However, influenza is a big killer every year, with or without a pandemic.

WHO estimates flu kills upward of 250,000 to 500,000 people year after year. “Normal” flu epidemics infect 3 to 5 million a year. Statistics are complicated by inconsistent reporting. Flu often leads to other ailments that end up being listed as the ultimate cause of death.

Flu’s typical victims are the elderly, the infirm or the young. The difference with swine flu outbreak in Mexico is that otherwise healthy adults aged 20-50 are vulnerable.

But so far the new swine flu death rates are lower than other recent pandemic scares, a report by Barclays Capital notes. The 2,200 swine flu infections reported have resulted in deaths in 7 percent of cases. Avian flu has killed 61 percent of the 421 people infected since 1997. The death rate from SARS was around 10 percent.

Outside Mexico, 50 infections have been reported in the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Spain and Scotland. But health experts are baffled that infections outside Mexico appear to be milder and have caused no deaths.

The world’s most recent flu pandemic 41 years ago was the 1968 Hong Kong outbreak, which claimed one million lives.

Historically, pandemics occur about three times a century. But like predictions of the next big earthquake, medical experts profess they have no idea when to expect the next pandemic.

Inevitably, comparisons end up turning back to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, which killed more than 50 million people, or 2.5 percent of the world’s population.

That scourge followed the massive troop movements of World War One at a time of poor communications and before the invention of penicillin and modern healthcare systems. Post-war censorship rules restricted access to news, which limited the ability of communities to make informed decisions to protect themselves against the spread of the flu.

The descent into a global pandemic is not inevitable. Air travel may spread the disease in its early stages, but modern communications and medicine can arm us to respond quickly as the disease evolves.

44 comments

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I’m an RN in the Central Texas area, an agency traveling nurse working in many area emergency rooms and reading a host of information from CDC, WHO, and popular media. Two things are clear, hype Sells and improves ratings, and people panic. Remember avian flu? Weren’t we all supposed to die? Disappeared, as does all other media related panic…unless or until I hear it directly from a truly reliable source, common sense rules. Hand washing and remain calm. Unfortunately, panic will rule the day because as they say “there is NO CURE for stupid”. Next year we will be asking each other whatever happened to swine flu. Please just exercise common sense and turn your bs filters on in regard to media hype in print or on tv. Because the medical community is literally on the “front lines” we generally receive pertinent information before it is released to the media. A LOT of creativity exists between our information and what you hear or read. I agree that a vaccine is for bad statistics and irresponsible media.

Posted by Shona | Report as abusive

Eric, I think you are trivialising the risk from Swine Flu (H1N1). Your article mentions the Spanish Flu (also H1N1) killing more than 50 million people in 1918. What you fail to mention is the mortality rate from the Spanish Flu also started slow, just like the 2009 Swine Flu (H1N1) & it was the deadly second wave of the virus that hit in the Fall/Winter that killed most people.

You need to read Flu Safe – Surviving the Pandemic by Dr. Wayman (www.flusafe.org).

Some mathematical models are suggesting the POSSIBILITY of more than 100 million people will die from Swine Flu 2009. That is why Dr. Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is saying “all of humanity is under threat”.

Posted by Adam Lark | Report as abusive

This isn’t about saving lives – this is about economics.

What a better way for Governments to deflect attention from the GFC than to create something even more scary to think about – in doing so our perspective is changed and we become grateful for what we have got not what we might get!.

“I thought I was poor because I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no feet”

Posted by Realist | Report as abusive

Not many statisticians are currently getting worked up and hysterical about the swine flu. It’s people in other professions and the media, like the columnist below.

But it’s typically the statisticians who get blamed.

Posted by Frazier | Report as abusive