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Unmasking Swine Flu
The week when Earth held its breath
Ryan Edward Fritz (refri)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-05 12:46 (KST)   
Last week when the Earth held its breath, one newspaper article warned apocalyptically that a second wave of the potentially deadly swine virus could well have struck the entire human population "with a vengeance". Another claimed that swine flu may "re-emerge stronger than ever" even if the current outbreak seems to be declining. Newspapers around the world -- such as the New York Times -- also screamed that this new virus, seemingly spreading around like brushfire, has the chance to "become the next pandemic."

The previous pandemic these newspapers refer to is of course the hugely lethal flu strain that infected the world's human population in 1918 and 1919. The pandemic spread to nearly every part of the world, killed anywhere from 70 to 100 million people, more than double the deaths of World War I. The most recent killer virus started out in Hong Kong in 1968 and 1969 and killed around 4 million people worldwide.

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Unmasking Swine Flu
The outbreak of the most recent swine flu in Mexico, which has spread to the United States and Great Britain and to small pockets across the world, is cause for concern, but not alarm. The number of human deaths in Mexico from this disease was changed late Sunday from a "suspected death toll" of 176 to 101 victims, with Mexican medical authorities indicating that the outbreak may not be as bad as was initially feared.

Travelers and shareholders alike should avoid reading headlines such as "Swine flu storms Asia as Worldwide Death Toll Increases," or "Swine flu could worsen global recession," like the plague because, quite simply, the facts from this so-called epidemic have been so far removed from fiction like the Dalai Lama has from Tibet.

Flu spreads around the world in seasonal epidemics, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands annually -- millions in pandemic years. Typically, in a seasonal influenza season, there are between three and five million cases of severe illness and can cause up to around half a million deaths -- much more than the 26 confirmed deaths from swine this year.

"Normal" flu and/or pneumonia already kill about 3,000 Australians every year, and 36,000 Americans, yet all this happens without a single headline.

Also there is the constant harping that humanity is "overdue" for another pandemic like the Spanish flu after WWI. It is widely known to most medical practitioners, epidemiologists and biochemists that there is no rhythm to pandemics. Newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt also believes that there is no disconcerting pattern of death.

"It took 38 years after the Spanish flu before the Asian flu of 1957-58 killed one million people, but just 10 more years before the Hong Kong virus claimed as many as four million. Since then it's been another 40 years without a serious outbreak," wrote Bolt last week.

The same can be said of the over-the-top reactions when Ebola hit Africa in 1995. Newspapers then predicted of a killer worldwide pandemic. Only 800 people died. And what about bird flu in 2005, or further back SARS in 2002, when the BBC warned "(SARS) could have a similar impact to the 1918 flu epidemic that killed over 50 million" -- It's the same level of unwarranted fear.

US President Barack Obama aptly described the situation on Monday: "There is reason for concern and (the need) for a heightened state of alert, but no cause for alarm."

Dr. Steve Waterman, heading a team from the United States' Centre for Disease Control (CDC) now working in Mexico, conceded that the virus does not match the ferocity of past pandemics, and a colleague of his, CDC epidemiologist Marc-Alain Widdowson, added: "The virus has been circulating for over a month in a city of 20 million of high density. It could have been much worse."

In Hong Kong, an extraordinary situation developed at a hotel where 350 guests and staff had been sealed in, while officials searched for anyone who had contact with an infected Mexican tourist. The man landed first in Shanghai before continuing to Hong Kong, where he checked into the Metropark Hotel. Health workers in white bodysuits patrolled the lobby of the Metropark in Hong Kong's Wan Chai bar and office district. About a dozen police officers wearing masks guarded the cordoned-off building, which was ordered to be quarantined for seven days starting on Friday.

In Egypt, authorities have begun in earnest the innocent slaughter of more than 300,000 pigs -- the carriers of the disease -- in what was originally described as a precaution against swine flu.

Tabloid reporters from around the world have poured sensationalist rubbish onto a molehill that has quickly arose into a mountain. From "outbreak" to "all of humanity threatened." Makes for exciting reading.

Humankind will always have to find new ways to fight off these ever-changing viruses that reinvent themselves in an effort to try and kill us more efficiently. Inventing new anti-bacterial drugs and antibodies, which are our last defense against our microscopic foes, has drastically improved since the days of the Spanish flu.

The closing monologue from the 2005 film, "War of the Worlds," fittingly expresses what we have been, and what fight we'll always be up against in centuries to come: "By the toll of a billion deaths (by germs of disease), man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet's infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges. For neither do men live nor die in vain."

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©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ryan Edward Fritz

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