Swine of the times: An epidemic like no other

May 4, 2009
As I write this, the swine flu epidemic is well on its way to being classified as a pandemic, having spread from its apparent epicenter in Mexico throughout North America, to Europe, Asia, and beyond. In fact, it was confirmed just a short time ago that a student at Notre Dame has been the first confirmed case in Indiana.

I've read a lot of information about this situation, and I've participated in several water cooler discussions. It seems apparent that there are two possible competing points of view. Either you think this is likely to be one of the worst disasters to hit mankind in the history of the universe; or you think the media has blown everything out of proportion to sell newspapers, increase viewership, and create mass hysteria as part of an evil plot of some sort. Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Before we all run off in a panic, it can be helpful to have a few facts about flu epidemics in general. Each year in the U.S., about 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu and about 36,000 die from it. Since about 25 percent of people carrying the flu virus have no symptoms, we can surmise that the general mortality rate—the number of people who die from the flu virus—is exceedingly low, concentrating normally around the elderly.

(For a great primer on both flu in general and this current outbreak of swine flu, see the Flu Resource Center provided by Harvard Medical School: www.health. harvard.edu/flu)

This doesn't mean that the flu can't be deadly. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor in chief of Harvard Health Publications, "the worst global pandemic in modern times was the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919. It affected about a third of the human race, and killed at least 40 million people in less than a year—more than have been killed by AIDS in three decades." This death toll was so extreme that the average life expectancy around the world dropped for 10 years.

While there are only 70 or so confirmed cases in the US as of this writing, the numbers are certainly climbing. What's concerning about this particular strain of flu is its apparent virility. Looking at the early statistics coming out of Mexico, it appears that the number of people dying from this particular strain is higher than normal.

On Monday, Associated Press Medical Writer Mike Stobbe fretted over statistics that showed about 70 deaths in Mexico out of roughly 1,000 reported cases. If accurate, these represent a fatality rate of about 7 percent. The 1918-1919 epidemic had a fatality rate of about 2.5 percent. While that sounds terrifying, it's important to keep in mind that it's way too early in the detection cycle to put a lot of faith in these numbers. Additionally, it's likely that the number of infected is far greater than just 1,000. Still, there are some other disturbing signs to consider. Perhaps the most important is that nearly all those who died in Mexico were between the ages of 20 and 40. Health experts worry about a flu virus that kills healthy young adults, since it can be a harbinger of worse things to come. Generally, deaths from a normal flu strain occur among the very young and very old.

What's this all doing in a Web column? Well, with information regarding the current situation changing on a daily, even hourly, basis, the Centers for Disease Control is working hard to keep people informed, including "broadcasting" updates via Twitter. (To follow these updates, visit twitter.com/CDCemergency.) It's also posting regular updates on its site at www.cdc.gov/swineflu/. Both this link and the Harvard Health site offer simple, common sense tips to help protect yourself and your loved ones from catching this and other infectious diseases.

Perhaps the most interesting way to track the progress is with Google Maps. With this tool, you can view a map of the world with cases (both confirmed and suspected) visually labeled for quick identification. The map contains a handy legend and is updated in near-real-time with the latest information. With the ability to zoom in and out and see the entire world at a glance—and have the information rapidly updated—it provides a very clear and suggestive picture of what we might be up against. You can view the map here: http://tinyurl.com/c9qqe4.

Whatever happens (and let's hope for the best), from a communications standpoint, this will be like no other epidemic in history.

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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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