Separating Reality From Hype in Swine Flu
The votes are in: swine flu is a global pandemic. Ahem; Make that a global media pandemic. H1N1 has dominated the news since its first emergence in April. As someone tracking the story for our Swine Flu Resource Center, I should know. News release after news release appear in my inbox like harbingers of impending doom.
But will a second, more lethal wave of swine flu visit us this autumn? From my perspective, it seems difficult to determine for certain.
Earlier this month, two scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases released a study which questioned whether severe influenza pandemics are preceded by a milder wave of illness. Not only did insufficient evidence exist to indicate this occurred in the 1918-1919 pandemic, this pattern did not happen in 14 pandemics over the last 500 years, the researchers found.
However, "influenza epidemics are lived forward and understood backward," the NAID scientists wrote.
In a report on lessons from the current outbreak issued this week, the World Health Organization also seemed to strike a cautiously-optimistic tone. While evidence from multiple sites demonstrates that the virus has rapidly established itself and is now the dominant influenza strain in most parts of the world, "studies have detected no signs that the virus has mutated to a more virulent or lethal form," the organization said.
Can we simply dismiss the H1N1 threat? With 209,438 laboratory-confirmed cases of 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (2009 H1N1) with at least 2,185 deaths worldwide reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by August 23, the clear answer is no.
We won't know and can't predict the severity of this H1N1 virus threat or whether it will mutate into a more deadly form until after the danger has passed.
What we can foresee is that many people who suspect they have swine flu will seek medical care this autumn. Preparing for this surge of patients is of utmost importance.