Real Epidemic or Media Hysteric? A Comparison of Swine Flu with Previous Outbreaks

The first reported case of the recent outbreak of swine flu was a five-year old boy in the small village of La Gloria, Mexico. It is currently unknown how this boy contracted the swine flu on April 1, 2009. The closest pig farm, located six miles outside La Gloria, which is owned by the American company Smithfield Foods, tested the animals for the virus but all the results came back negative.

It is also unknown if this boy from Mexico really was the first victim of swine flu. A report from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory stated that a boy in San Diego, California, who became ill on March 30, may actually be the very first swine flu patient. What is known is that within weeks over forty countries have confirmed cases of swine flu, most patients are experiencing mild symptoms, and the majority of those afflicted are children, teens, and young adults.

The latest numbers from the World Health Organization state that the confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza are 10,243, with the total deaths around 80. The number of swine flu patients in the U.S. is reported as 5,469. Of the 6 fatalities in America, 3 were in Texas and 1 each was in Arizona, Washington, and New York.

According to Health and Human Services, there have only been three influenza pandemics during the last hundred years: Spanish flu in 1918, Asian flu in 1957, and Hong Kong flu in 1968. But if one were to rely on the media for medical advice, every year’s flu season is a presumed outbreak until proven wrong. This is not just observed with different flu strains but with every new illness such as SARS and West Nile Virus, with the media creating a frenzy and then dropping the stories even quicker than the sickness stops spreading.

A pandemic is defined by geography. If an illness is prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or even the world a pandemic is occurring. The definition of an epidemic, a word commonly misused and manipulated by media outlets, is any disease that is more widespread than previous records. If the average number of flu cases in a given area is 20 per year, and then the number of cases increases to 25 during a particular 12-month period, an epidemic is occurring although in most cases there is nothing to cause alarm.

The media may be accurate in calling the current outbreak of swine flu an epidemic, as the number of cases is higher than previous, non-existing ones. But as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that the average number of deaths due to the regular flu is 36,000 per year in the U.S., and they have confirmed only 6 deaths due to swine flu, the latter is nothing to worry about at least for now.

According to the CDC, just as with the current swine flu outbreak, the origin of the 1918 Spanish flu is unknown. One-third of the world’s population experienced Spanish flu, with an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide. In the U.S., the first case of Spanish flu is believed to be a soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas on March 4, 1918; within three weeks more than 1,100 others on the base were hospitalized with the same condition. The second affected American city was Queens, New York, which saw their first case on March 11. One of the largest unsolved mystery of the Spanish flu is how it spread to remote locations such as the Arctic and isolated Pacific islands.

The Spanish flu, and also the “Asian” flu which was first seen in China in 1957 before it spread worldwide, commonly infected children and young adults although the elderly had the highest fatalities. This is different than most flu outbreaks which sicken the very young and old and those with weakened immune systems. More than 70,000 people in America died of Asian flu during the 1957-58 season.

In 1976 a new flu virus, which was later named “swine flu” as it was the first case of its kind seen in humans, was identified at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Experts believed the virus was related to the Spanish flu virus of 1918, which led to a large vaccination campaign in America. Cases were reported in 19 out of 21 counties in New Jersey, but then the virus disappeared.

In January 2004, the CDC began an experiment to combine human flu with avian flu (Link here). The scientists planned to infect animals with this hybrid flu to determine how this virus affects them and how quickly it can spread. As the current swine flu outbreak is a hybrid of pig, avian, and human flu, having the human-bird genome should aid in the making of a vaccine that could be effective against this newest influenza type.

In 1918, Spanish flu emerged in the spring, practically disappeared during the summer, and then reappeared as a mutated lethal strain in the autumn. It is too soon to determine if swine flu will become a devastating and lethal illness, a plague of the twenty-first century. Or perhaps swine flu will join SARS as the media hysteric that wasn’t a true epidemic.

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