Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vol. 4: Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

As the swine flu (Influenza A H1N1) story settles into the long haul, there are still fascinating diversions to be found in its reporting.

In a man-bites-dog twist, in Canada, they have pigs that have contracted swine flu from humans. In Alberta, a farm worker who got swine flu in Mexico apparently passed it on to Canadian pigs.

There's a bunch of commentators who have used the swine flu issue to prop up their own worldviews, many of them complaining about border security and illegal immigration. Problem is it's legal tourists who have brought most of the cases out of Mexico, not illegal aliens.

A group of New Zealand returning students brought it from Mexico to New Zealand. Spanish beachgoers brought it from Mexican beach vacations. The first Swiss case was a tourist returning from Mexico. Catholic school kids in Queens brought it back from a spring break in Cancun. Most of the Britons with the flu picked it up in Mexico. And so forth.

After panicky reports in the first couple of weeks of the flu outbreak, some reports are now swinging entirely the other way—suggesting that perhaps this is was overblown, a mild flu, perhaps not even as bad as a normal seasonal flu.

The best we can say to that is, be careful.

Flu can come in waves--the first wave relatively mild, and subsequent ones severe. Also, flu can mutate mid-season, and if this one does, it could end up with more severe symptoms, or less severe symptoms, or the mutation could cause other changes in the flu's behavior. Among the clearest descriptions we've found of the murky future is this one:

"Influenza is unpredictable. There are so many unanswered questions. This is a brand new virus. There's so much we don't know about the human infectious with this virus,” said CDC epidemiologist Dr. Tim Uyeki.

Some are arguing that the flu has peaked in Mexico and is on the decline there, but globally, the flu is still adding new countries almost daily. It continues to spread.

How many people have actually had the disease? You see media reports of large numbers, like 1,000 New Yorkers associated with the Catholic schools outbreak there. But as of today, May 3, the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are confirming just 226 cases in 30 states.

Mexico has reports of 1,300 or more people hospitalized with the disease, but the official number of victims is just a few hundred. The county of people who died from the disease is set at 19 in Mexico, but the unofficial count is between 100 and 200.

What gives?

There have probably in fact been thousands of cases across the U.S. and thousands more in Mexico, but the official numbers include only those that have been confirmed by laboratory tests.

Lab tests are expensive, time consuming, and in many cases not necessary. If your kid comes home from school sick, after being in contact with a confirmed swine flu sufferer in pre-school, and then you and the other kids in the family come down with a flu, and then so do your carpool colleagues, there's no point in testing your family or the carpoolers—it's almost certainly swine flu. So there might be a dozen people there with the bug, but on the CDC list, that would still be just one laboratory confirmed case.

The result is that the actual number of people who've been sick is far, far higher than the official number, like the World Health Organization May 3 report of a total of 787 confirmed cases in 17 countries. To date, the total confirmed worldwide death count stands at 20—19 in Mexico and one in the U.S.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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