Swine Flu: Lots of Hype or Did the Hype Save Us?
With the peak of flu season behind us, as swine flu cases drop and, as a result, European countries cancel millions of swine-flu vaccine orders, the World Health Organization (WHO) is facing tough allegations of "faking" a pandemic for the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry, according to a Jan. 26 ABC News report.
The allegations have prompted an internal review at the WHO and the Council of Europe hearings, stated a Jan. 26 BBC article. And WHO released an official statement Jan. 22 denying any improper conduct or conflict of interest.
What I am wondering is why WHO is being criticized for obtaining the very outcome it is supposed to: preventing a pandemic? Isn't it possible WHO's "hype" over the swine flu being a pandemic is the very reason it didn't turn into one?
A pandemic, after all, is not something a flu is or isn't; it is something a flu becomes - or doesn't. As death rates rise, a pandemic is assigned a higher category (from 1 to 5) on the CDC's Pandemic Severity Index.
As of today, swine flu is listed as category 1 - the lowest, with a death rate of less than 0.1 percent and on the same level as seasonal flu. It killed about 14,000 people worldwide. In comparison, "A category 5 pandemic would compare to the 1918 flu pandemic, which had an estimated death rate of 2 percent or more, and would kill tens of millions of people," a Reuter's article noted.
What stopped swine flu from spreading to 1918 proportions and killing tens of millions of people? I believe it could have been the preventative measures people around the world were taking sparked by WHO's "hype":
- Could it have been with all the media attention on H1N1, people who experienced flu symptoms were more likely to seek help? (And the estimated 55 million people who became ill from the swine flu were lucky enough to be just that, and not part of the death toll?) Various reports, such as this one - "Emergency rooms crowded because of swine flu scare" - confirmed more people were seeking treatment for even the smallest flu symptom.
- Could it have been the 1 in 5 Americans the CDC estimated who got the swine flu vaccination - thereby stopping the spread of the flu pandemic in its tracks? The greatest proportion of those vaccinated (28 percent of the 160 million) were deemed most "vulnerable" to the influenza, such as pregnant women, children and people with underlying health conditions. I wonder what the death toll would have been had the push for this target group to get vaccinated not happened.
- Could it have been that because of the hype people were more cautious? In May of last year, schools across the country closed - in Boston, Houston and 26 schools in New York - as worldwide swine flu numbers exceeded 10,000 to "prevent its spread among students," according to the ABC News report. Here is a microcosm of the bigger picture: WHO's hype over swine flu causes schools to close to prevent its spread, fewer people get swine flu, and people complain WHO hyped it up too much. Wasn't WHO at the start of this positive chain reaction?
In response to the accusation WHO built up swine flu too much, WHO's Dr. Keiji Fukuda, special adviser on pandemic influenza, responded in the BBC's Jan. 26 article, "But we do not wait until [these global virus outbreaks] have developed and we see that lots of people are dying. What we try and do is take preventive actions. If we are successful no one will die, no one will notice anything."
And what a difficult job that is to prove. WHO is successful when swine flu passes through a globe and no one really notices. When so few people die, the hype they talked about never really happens - WHO did its job. Which is why I believe WHO can't win: If swine flu did become a pandemic, the organization would have been criticized for not preventing it. It didn't, and so now the view is WHO over-hyped it.
WHO never could have known exactly what type of virus swine flu would have turned into, so if the only "pandemic" swine flu caused was in the form of fear and caution, better that than the alternative.