Thoughts on pandemic flu

It seems as though, at least for now, Swine Flu is not “the big one”. Lot’s of people are complaining about how the media has hyped it up and sensationalized it, how there are already tens of thousands of deaths a year due to regular flu, and how this was all really a tempest in a teacup.

My perspective on the issue is rather different.

  • The kind of flu pandemic we are worried about will be one to which we have no prior immunity. This means that more people will get sick and people who do get sick will be sicker. For the regular flu, most adults have some previous carry-over immunity.
  • On a related note, MOST of the time, there is a vaccine available for the regular flu. That helps spread out the rate of transmission, means fewer people are infected and the infections are less serious, and can help halt transmission. For a scary-new pandemic flu, that will not be true.
  • In the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than twice the number of people killed in WWI (, the people who were mostly likely to die were the strong, healthy adults. With the regular flu, the people most likely to die are the very young and the very old. (Really, if you think that everyone was overreacting, read the Wikipedia article on 1918 and think again.)
  • With the 1918 flu, up to 5% of infected individuals died. That pandemic cost us Gustav Klimpt and Bill Yawkey (of Yawkey way) as well as 70 to 100 million other mother’s children.
  • I have heard, although I can’t find support for this, so it may just be false memory, that some victims of the 1918 pandemic died within 12 hours of showing symptoms.
  • If infection rates are very high, our superior medical technology won’t help THAT much. We only have so many ventilators and doctors. Our emergency rooms normally run at or over capacity. If 20% of the population is sick, you cannot count on a hospital bed, ventilator and focussed attention.

So do I think the response we just had to the flu was an overreaction? Absolutely not. We aren’t out of the woods yet on this one right now — it might take a nasty turn. We certainly aren’t out of the woods on this virus. As the 1918 flu pandemic happened, the first wave was mild, the second brutally lethal.

Even if it happens to pass that this mutation never takes a turn for the nastier — which God willing it won’t — the efforts we have spent have NOT been in vain. In the first place, there was no way of knowing whether this would be a big deal or not ahead of time. The world needed to act as though it was going to be as bad as 1918 and hope that it would be wrong on the “overreacting” side. Who knows? Maybe if we hadn’t slowed it down or stopped it, there was some person in whom it was going to mix with another virus or mutate and take that nasty turn. These actions MAY have prevented it.

But most importantly, chances are good that some day the world will face a viral pandemic like the 1918 flu. This episode has provided us with an excellent chance to practice. I would not be surprised, for example, for people to realize we need more early tracking all over the globe. I also wouldn’t be surprised if plans were changed. For instance, it quickly became clear that the pace of global travel meant clamping down on infected areas was useless. Lots of the transmission was from people in richer countries who had vacationed in Mexico. When you mean shut the borders, do you really mean strand your 19 year old daughter in Cancun and don’t let her come home from her spring break?

So no. I’m sure the media enjoyed the ratings, but they didn’t make this up or play it for all it was worth for no reason. We were not — still are not — sure how this will all fall out. And a influenza pandemic remains a very real and very scary risk.

NOTE: This page has a great breakdown on flu deaths in regular circumstances:

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

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