Public health physicians and medical journalists have a tough job when it comes to informing the public about the Swine Flu as we have to walk the tightrope between informing you so that you can protect yourself and your family, and sending people into anxiety attacks. No doubt you are interested in the topic, as my blog posts on the Swine Flu on Monday, April 27 drew more hits than any blog on any day since I started blogging. So, why should you NOT panic – at least for now?
As reports of a few cases of Swine Flu in California and Texas last Friday turned into hundreds and the first U.S. death was reported today — along with the fact that the World Health Organization issuing a pandemic threat phase of 4 on Monday and went up to phase 5 today (out of 6) – many otherwise healthy people feel on edge.
The following are the top five reasons given by public health officials as to why we shouldn’t panic about the swine flu – yet – as posted on ABC News.
Reason 1: The Low Numbers – For Now
“It’s just a handful of cases. It is spreading but it’s still quite early,” said Dr. Martin Blaser, chairman of the Department of Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.
“In most cases, it’s just regular influenza – it’s something that happens every year all the time,” he said.
Although he expects the numbers to rise this week as labs catch up to diagnose current cases, Blaser said the public should bear in mind their own strength in numbers.
As of today (Wednesday) the CDC has reported only 91 confirmed cases in the United States, a country with more than 300 million uninfected people.
Reason 2: The Low Death Rate – For Now
Doctors worry most about people with chronic disease, children, the elderly, and others with weak immune systems during a flu outbreak. However, during potential pandemics, it’s often the healthy who suffer the worst disease burden.
While that still holds true with swine flu, those who study outbreaks say that this influenza A(H1N1) isn’t even close to the deadliest strain out there.
“A thing to keep in mind is the case-fatality,” said Ed Hsu an associate professor of Public Health Informatics at the University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences in Houston.
Case-fatality is a simple way to measure how deadly a disease can be: the percentage of people who got the disease and did not survive. Hsu said case fatality for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) reached more than 50 percent, while bird flu reached 60 percent.
“What we’re seeing in Mexico case fatality is about 10 percent, and some of those are not confirmed,” said Hsu. “Compared to bird flu it’s relatively mild.”
As of Tuesday evening, Mexican Health Officials report they have 20 confirmed deaths from the swine flu virus, while the World Health Organization says their current laboratory-confirmed total is seven.
Reason 3: The Swine Flu is Treatable – For Now
Although doctors don’t have a vaccine for the new strain of swine flu, Blaser said there is hope in our medical arsenal.
“At this point the strain is sensitive to flu medication such as Tamiflu,” said Baser, who is also the past president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Tamiflu can subdue many flu infections if taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. The current federal Public Health Emergency declaration has allowed the federal government’s to stockpile and allocate flu medication to areas that need it most.
But Blaser warns people not to take flu medication without a prescription – especially if they have not had any symptoms.
“If enough people do, the virus will become resistant and it [the medicine] will not work,” said Blaser.
Reason 4: Governments and Scientists Have Learned their lessons
Certainly the declarations of public health emergencies in various countries has led to anxiety and worry – but experts say this is a sign that governments are better prepared for pandemics than ever before.
“In terms of quarantine and travel rules – we are much better prepared,” said Hsu. “This is a great, great, improvement and this is a lesson learned from previous outbreaks.”
Although it scares most people that swine flu cases are popping up all over the globe, to Hsu it shows governments aren’t trying to cover up a disease.
“It is a good sign, which is the transparency of reporting,” said Hsu.
Blaser concurred on the government’s responsiveness – not only with the speed at which they declared a public health emergency but with the money and work put behind finding a new vaccine.
“Work on developing a vaccine for this flu is already underway,” said Blaser. “The Centers for Disease Control, the federal government, the World Health Organization – they all have this on their radar screen, which is good.”
Reason 5: Watch Out Flu, It’s Springtime
As the numbers of swine flu cases and deaths climb, Hsu said he and his colleagues are keeping a close eye on the disease trends.
Based on his past work with the bird flu and SARS, Hsu said most infections decline in the summer months. If swine flu follows suit, then there are good signs a pandemic has been avoided.
“Looking at the trend, the flu data the flu trend should be declining in May,” said Hsu. “The next few weeks should be important.”