Sunday, November 15, 2009

Swine flu: Eight Myths That Could Endanger Your Life

Britain’s New Scientist magazine has done a great job of debunking a lot of the nonsense people keep hearing about H1N1. When it first made the news I was extremely skeptical. I am not in panic now, but I have modified my position. Now I think it will be something like Y2K. You’ll remember Y2K as the catastrophe that never happened. What most people forget is that 300 billion US dollars were spent to ensure nothing happened. Those of us who did little or nothing - and I am one of those people - got away scott free because others did the work for us. Major systems were made compliant by industry leaders and government fiat. Its not a perfect analogy, I know, but even if you do nothing, the fact that everyone else is working hard to prevent a problem will not only lessen the chance of it happening, it will lessen the chance of it happening to you. But that doesn’t mean you should be content to do nothing. Check out the articles.

1. The symptoms are like regular flu. You've got it if you've got a fever.
"Ten per cent of our patients had no fever when admitted," says intensive care specialist Anand Kumar of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Worryingly, this message has not got through to all doctors, health agencies or those creating online diagnostic aids. In many cases, the official line remains: if you don't have fever, you don't have flu.
2. This is just mild flu. The death rates are even lower than for normal flu.
These numbers should not be compared directly. The 36,000 figure comes from epidemiological studies… Such studies reveal a bulge in deaths during and just after the flu season every year, mainly among the elderly. Many are clearly due to flu and other lung infections that can follow it, but more than half are not obviously connected, because flu often kills in indirect ways, by triggering heart attacks or strokes, for instance.
By contrast, the deaths attributed to swine flu are those directly caused by respiratory infection with the pandemic virus. Indirect deaths - the majority of the 36,000 figure for regular flu - are not being counted. The full death toll for 2009 H1N1 flu will not be known for a while, if ever.
3. You're safe as long as you're healthy. Only sick, weak people get really ill.
Most of the children who have died of swine flu were perfectly healthy beforehand, and many of the adult victims also had no underlying conditions.
Up to six times as many people as normal - a third or more of the population - are expected to get 2009 flu, because few people have any effective antibody protection against the virus… So if you have the right genes and you have had seasonal H1N1, you are less likely to get the severe form of flu. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell.
4. I'll be OK if I just eat organic food, take vitamins, wear a mask, wash my hands a lot and drink plenty of fluids.
Keeping healthy may make a mild case of flu even milder. And stopping smoking, losing excess weight and avoiding binge drinking will reduce your chances of getting the severe form of pandemic flu. But beyond this, little of the advice proliferating on the internet is backed by any evidence.
5. It's OK now because we have a vaccine. In fact, we have several.
The pandemic vaccine should make you and your family safe from this virus, but you may not get it for months, if you can get it at all. Some countries, including the US and the UK, have ordered enough to vaccinate everyone and immunisation began this month. But batches will arrive slowly, over several months, because the vaccine virus grew slowly and because we have few vaccine factories.
6. The vaccine isn't safe. Why take the risk to prevent mild flu?
The 1976 vaccine caused around 10 cases per million vaccinated. Even ordinary flu vaccines, however, are thought to cause one extra case of Guillain-Barré per million, in addition to the 10 to 20 per million who get Guillain-Barré some other way every year.
Does this mean it is safer not getting vaccinated? Absolutely not. First, there is the risk of swine flu killing you. Second, what few people know is that flu itself is far more likely to cause Guillain-Barré than any flu vaccine
7. This virus won't get deadlier - that isn't in a germ's interests.
We can also say that once most people have been infected by swine flu and become immune, a variant that can beat that immunity will replace the current strain. Will that variant be milder or nastier? An ordinary flu virus that suddenly became globally dominant in 2004 was more virulent than the strain it evolved from - though it isn't clear whether being nastier is what gave it the edge, says Jeffery Taubenberger of the US National Institutes of Health.
8. Once this pandemic is over we'll be safe for another few decades.
The next pandemic could be in 2059 - or next year. There is no obvious pattern to flu pandemics: the ones we know about were in 1580, 1729, 1781, 1830, 1847, 1889, 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009. But the way this one emerged tells us we may be in for more soon.

No comments: