Widespread Panic

Despite its status as a public health emergency, is the swine flu just another flu?

OK, so maybe the pandemic swine flu, the public health emergency declared by the US Government, the bug that’s supposed to wipe out a large percentage of the planet, won’t be so bad after all. First came last week’s Australian report that a new swine flue vaccine actually works—and better still, we won’t need two shots, as some had earlier thought: “A single dose of the vaccine produced a robust immune response in a majority of subjects.”

Now others are taking a strangely common sense approach to the strangely appealing apocalyptic freakout of the human race being wiped out by a pandemic meant for pigs. Take STRATFOR, the global intelligence company based in Austin that has been around since 1996, analyzing everything from the kookiness of the military government in Madagascar to the riskiness of spring break in Cancun. On its Web site , above reports on Iran, Russia, and “The Militant Threat to Hotels,” STRATFOR has a story titled, “A(H1N1): Just Another Flu.” A(H1N1), of course, is just another name for the swine flu and, the report says, “There is no solid evidence to justify the media hysteria over the danger of A(H1Ni) flu virus.” STRATFOR analyzes reports from the CDC and WHO, which note that the swine flu is not as deadly or even as achy as the regular old flu, which kills about 36,000 people in the US every year. “If you take only one fact away from this analysis,” writes STRATFOR, “take this: The CDC believes that hospitalization rates and mortality rates for A(H1N1) are similar to or lower than they are for more traditional influenza strains. And if you take two facts away, consider this as well: Influenza data are incomplete at best and rarely cross-comparable, so any assertions of the likelihood of mass deaths are little more than scaremongering bereft of any real analysis or, more important, any actual evidence.”

In other words, relax—after all, this new swine flu has only killed 3,200 people so far. But what about the recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which called the swine flu a “severe threat to our nation and the world” and gave a “plausible scenario” in which the epidemic could infect 30 to 50 percent of the country, send 1.8 million people to the hospital, and kill between 30 and 90 thousand? Peter Zeihan, the STRATFOR analyst responsible for the report, thinks those numbers are high. “Ninety thousand deaths is on the high end—it reads as a very ‘cover-your-ass’ kind of thing. We’ll see an uptick in fatalities, but whether it’ll be significant or not is hard to tell. The lessons so far from the 2009 flu season in the southern hemisphere point to a 10 to 30 percent increase, and we’ve had far worse flu seasons in the past.” Zeihan says the 1.8 million hospitalizations is high too, though he admits, “I agree the single biggest concern is that more people are likely to go to the hospital, and that could overwhelm the system.”

But what about the mutants? The STRATFOR report acknowledges the teeny-tiny concern that the virus could mutate into something even deadlier, which is what happened in 1918, when a version of the swine flu killed somewhere between 40 and 100 million people (there was a war going on, so it was hard to keep track). “Sooner or later a virus will mutate,” says Zeihan. “It happened in 1918, it happened with the Bubonic Plague. But there’s no reason to think it’s going to happen this year. Nature is not going to advertise it ahead of time. A virus will mutate, but probably in a country where people have close contact with animals—that’s how diseases spread. The only thing we can do about that is to continue viral research.”

Ultimately, Zeihan is cheered by how the government has responded to the threats. “The vaccine is supposed to be ready a month from today,” he says, “and that’s impressive, considering the virus has only been around six months. The CDC’s advice on who should get it is also good: pregnant women first, then caretakers of small children, health care workers in general, children 6 months to four years, and finally kids 5 to 18.”  

So, get your shot, wash your hands, don’t touch your nose or eyes, and relax. And if you get sick, don’t worry. Feel crappy.

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