Thursday, May 07, 2009

Flu Update

It looks like this one was another (mostly) false alarm. The reasons for the high fatality rates of the earliest cases in Mexico aren't yet certain, but they don't seem to indicate a more powerful flu virus. This one seems to be a normal flu.

That's not to say it's not dangerous. It is. The flu is one of our more deadly common diseases, and this particular strain is extra bad because no one has any immunity to it. There is no vaccine for it. The annual flu vaccine is a best guess of what strains are likely to appear, and this flu wasn't around when the vaccine was being made.

But it doesn't seem to be any more dangerous than most flus, so you may as well make your plans again and not worry unless you're feeling sick. But keep washing your hands, please. Stay in practice for the next strain to come down the line.

And if you are thinking the CDC and WHO overreacted, think about this. If that early rate of fatalities had continued, we would be thanking them that we knew about it and were ready to deal with it. We're just lucky it wasn't/isn't the case this time.

I'll leave you with one last haunting thought. The deadly flu of 1918 had a 5% mortality rate (worst case estimates), tens of millions of people died. The swine flu outbreak appeared at the beginning to have a 6% mortality rate (later revised WAY downward when more concrete information was gathered). But the bird flu has an over 80% mortality rate: fortunately it does not yet seem to be able to spread from human to human (you can only get it from birds). This is why experts are still worried about bird flu (and will be for the foreseeable future). And this is why we have to take reports of possible flu outbreaks seriously, even if we think it might be an overreaction.