The H1N1 influenza virus continues to spread but appears less dangerous than feared.
A lot of people are probably thinking that Mexico, the U.S. government (in the form of the Atlanta, GA-based CDC) and the World Health Organization collectively cried wolf in a big way a few weeks ago but it is important to realize that a new form of fast-spreading influenza occurring in what is normally a very quiet season for the flu, is one major sign of a potentially highly dangerous pandemic.
Whether something is actually classified as a pandemic really isn’t an important designation as far as the public is concerned – essentially it is just a way of triggering various preparatory actions on the part of national health services.
Basically a pandemic is just a new, fast-spreading disease for which there may be no good treatment.
What is really important is whether a pandemic is also “dangerous” that is, causes a high number of deaths.
Each year the seasonal flu results in about 30,000 deaths in the U.S. People don’t even get worked up enough about that to bother getting flu shots.
Those deaths are often seen in the very young or the elderly, or those with underlying illnesses and the flu is just a contributing factor.
A really dangerous pandemic such as the one which occurred at the end of World War I is several orders of magnitude worse, not only killing vast numbers of people (in the tens of millions) but, most importantly, often causing the deaths of strong, healthy individuals. This occurs because they have no immunity to the new strain of flu and their immune systems overreact in much the same way an autoimmune disease actually causes the death of the very body it is trying to protect.
This actually is the situation with the H5N1 “bird flu” which still shows up occasionally and which has an extremely high mortality rate among normally healthy individuals.
(See my earlier story on why the flu kills normally healthy individuals for an explanation.)
It takes several weeks to determine if a new flu strain is one of these extremely dangerous forms, or is, as this strain of H1N1 now appears, just a normal flu like a seasonal influenza strain.
The problem facing government agencies is that a pandemic spreads so quickly that government and world health agencies have to be fully prepared take action immediately to prevent the spread of a new strain of highly infections flu just in case it turns out to be highly dangerous.
This is similar to the concerns about global warming, or the question of whether cigarettes are bad for you – that is, if you wait until you have ALL the proof, it is probably too late.
The World Health Organization reported on May 17th that the new Type A (H1N1) flu is now officially reported in 39 countries with 8480 confirmed cases.
But outside of Mexico, which may have had up to 66 deaths actually related to the flu itself, there have only been 4 deaths in the U.S. which has 4717 confirmed cases.
It is also important to understand that in a normal seasonal flu outbreak it is thought that only about one person in 10 or as few as one in 100 who actually have the flu get it confirmed by full laboratory tests.
That means that the mortality rate in the U.S. (which seems to be mostly or entirely among people who were in poor health to begin with) is quite low, possibly lower than the usual run of seasonal flu.
At this time the WHO is NOT recommending any travel restrictions related to the H1N1 virus.
For now this flu outbreak is being carefully monitored but the only people who need to restrict their travel is those who are actually sick and it is only common sense not to get on an airplane when you are sick even with the common cold.