On the flu and the choice to panic (or not)

I’ve been doing my best to restrain my usual cynicism about the hysterical media coverage of health issues in the case of the swine flu, as until quite recently there have been too many unknowns to do much other than shrug and say “we’ll see”.

But it seems now that we do know some things:

1. It’s not terribly lethal, although (like the 1918 flu) it does seem to have a tendency to kill youngish, otherwise healthy people. I’ve seen death rate estimates up to 6% – which makes it several times more lethal than the 1918 flu, which had about a 2.5% mortality rate. That means that if you’re an excitable news type you get to say “200%+++ more lethal than the 1918 pandemic!!!!” because that makes it sound very dramatic indeed. But it also means, if you think about it, that even if you do catch it you stand 94 chances in 100 of recovering. Or to put it another way, a bit better than 15 chances in 16.

We should thank our collective lucky stars that if this genie is as out of the bottle as it seems to be, at least it’s a 6% — or less? It’s early days still, and the rural Mexican experience may not reflect the global experience, particularly that part of the global experience that has ready access to modern medicine — lethal genie with a 1-week incubation and not a 50-80% lethal genie with a disastrously long 3-week incubation like, say, Ebola.

Also, let’s remember that plain-Jane annual influenza strains are responsible for at least 700 deaths a year in Canada (possibly up to 2500). Not to sound callous, as every single preventable death is a horrible tragedy, but this flu may not even push us over normal numbers. (The potential difference which might not be reflected in the numbers, of course, is that we’re more used to influenza killing the very young and very old, not — as in this case — youngish adults.)(Like me.)

BoingBoing reposted this analysis of the 1918 numbers, which is useful in that it takes a sensible and calming approach. However, it also doesn’t tell us much that’s really applicable. Yes, we have good public health measures and near-instant communications now so perhaps less than 1918’s 28% of people would catch the thing. But on the other hand, we now have air travel which totally changes the game. It allows people to cross the globe well within the incubation period of the virus, and this sort of transmission has in fact already happened. No more do we have the leisurely plagues of old, which you could see coming across the world towards you for weeks or months before they arrived. I’d like to see some solid epidemiological modelling of air travel’s potential effects on this influenza virus’ transmission before I’ll be ready to agree we’re comparing apples to apples when we look at 1918. Anyway, it may be a reassuring piece to read.

2. Eating pork can’t give you the flu. Throwing out your pork products is entirely pointless. Enjoy your bacon, folks. It’s fine and it’s actually counterproductive to do otherwise and leave dead pigs moldering about. Better to clean up the pigs’ waste, which attracts flies which are (or seem to be) the actual swine-to-human disease vector in this case. The flies seem to be more of an issue than the pigs, and they are certainly more of an issue than processed pig flesh from the butcher. (If you eat or otherwise consort with flies that regularly feast on pig waste, you may wish to temporarily or permanently cease that practice.)(And look into therapy.)

3. It can be transmitted from one person to another. So the surgical masks are not necessarily pointless, depending on where you are in the world. I’m certainly comfortable taking the Toronto subway without one. In Mexico City, on the other hand, a mask is maybe not the worst idea, at least this week.

It ought to be pointed out that there are many kinds of “surgical masks”. I have not yet seen recommendations about which types are most appropriate for this purpose, so many of the people you see wearing those masks in pictures in the newspaper may not be doing as much as they think they are. Still, even the worst mask keeps you from touching your potentially icky fingers to your mouth and nose, so that’s something.

At this point, though, in Toronto I’d say just wash your hands after you get off the subway (which you probably do anyway). Or ride your bike.

4. It’s responsive to the more common antivirals in our current arsenal.

Keep calm and carry on My conclusion: there’s no need to freak out just yet.

Yes, it’s making its way around the globe, and we can’t stop it.

Yes, it could easily mutate and become more deadly, although this is not generally a successful tactic for viruses; usually viruses become less lethal over time so its victims are better able to spread it. You can’t do much to spread your virus if you’re completely flattened by it, lying alone in your room.

Yes, the flu is a whole lot of no fun — someone online today used the expression “she felt she’d have to get better in order to die,” which well reflects my own experience with it.

Indications at this point seem to be that if you do catch it, the odds are heavily on your side, even more so if you are able to receive modern medical assistance in the form of antivirals and such.

So. You know. Keep calm and carry on, and never mind the excitable media.

But listen to the MOH and wash the heck out of your hands*. Think of it as an excuse to buy yourself some nice hand lotion.

* I’ll insert a corollary plea here: kindly do NOT use hand sanitizers unless you’re somewhere that totally lacks running water. Those things a) stink and b) are helping breed the superbug that WILL kill us all.

2 thoughts on “On the flu and the choice to panic (or not)

  1. Maybe you should take over the PR for this–first thing on the subject that has made any sense.

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