When the first reports of the swine flu (now renamed the H1N1 flu) reached my desk at the end of last week, I was curious. . . however my weekend plans were about to swing into full gear. So other then a quick glance at the fax, pigs did not cross my mind again the entire weekend (BTW, to avoid misappropriated fear about pigs/pork being a potential source of the flu, the formerly known swine flu has been renamed. . . I use thoughts about pigs for literary purposes only).
By Tuesday (4/28/09) of this week, the media was on an information blitz, inundating the public and medical community with factoids, articles and history on past flu epidemics and the potential dangers of this new swine flu. I thought of pigs a bit more.
Generally, my friends and patients know that I am not an alarmist. When their children are sick, they turn to me to offer a voice of reason, and generally I am able to assuage their anxiety. However, being a mild connoisseur of flu history, I began to get a queasy feeling in my stomach as I read each additional article on the evolving potential swine flu pandemic. All the hallmarks were there for a possible incendiary public health threat. Any time my mind idled, it turned to thinking about pigs.
Dr. Sandro Galea, director of the Center for Global Health at the University of Michigan and a professor of Epidemiology at the University's School of Public Health, says that generally speaking, at the beginning of events such as the swine flu outbreak there is confusion, which quickly gives way to rational behavior.
And this makes sense. After all, it is often the lack of information and the fear of the unknown that drives many of us to initially overreact. With more information, we can make greater and greater rational decisions.
Early in this week, many of my patients asked my advice on the breaking swine flu. Other then a few tidbits of information from CDC.GOV I had little to offer. However, each passing day has brought forth crucial information which is being used to formulate public policy.
Over this weekend the CDC and WHO will gather more information on the virus itself, the pattern of the outbreak/spread and research the known cases/deaths. Already facts are coming in suggesting a milder threat than initially perceived. I believe by Monday they will have a much better feel of the scope and magnitude of this problem.
A few things that we already know about this virus:
1. This strain of H1N1 does not seem nearly as virulent as the deadly 1918 H1N1 flu strain.
2. As of the writing of this blog there has only been 1 known death in the U.S. and it was to a child who had underlying medical issues prior to contracting the flu. Additionally, this child came from Mexico via Brownsville to Houston, Texas for the purposes of receiving greater medical expertise/care.
3. The number of deaths in Mexico are unclear. As of the writing of this blog there were only 12 confirmed deaths, which contrasts to the >150 deaths speculated by certain media sources.
4. A possible theory as to why a greater number of deaths have occurred in Mexico is that there is a cultural tendency to seek medical care later in the course of illnesses. Which may mean that this virus is not as deadly for those who are appropriately treated. See NYT Article for more details.
5. Northwestern University researchers have a computer model they say is doing a good job predicting the spread of swine flu and it is predicting the entire United States will have between 1,600 and 2,000 cases one month from now.
6. This strain of flu is a mixture of pig, bird, and human flu (although some people believe all flu strains originated from birds at some point).
7. They expect a vaccine against this strain to be ready in 4-6 months in time for the winter flu season.
An often-used analogy during this outbreak has been preparing for a hurricane. Having resided in Houston since 1982, I have lived through many evacuations, news blitzes and the hurricanes themselves. Recently, in 2005, following the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita was set to strike the Gulf Coast. In an effort to protect its constituents, Houston was advised to evacuate. Many people did. What ensued was hours of gridlock leading to cars running out of gas with people languishing under the brutal Texas sun with no AC.
Ultimately, although Rita was the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, Houston as a whole remained safe during the storm. Our family chose to stay, and after hearing the stories of friends trapped on the highway, we were glad that we had avoided the gridlock.
On the flip side, had we lived and stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or in Galveston during Hurricane Ike, my wife and I would have regretted our decision to not evacuate as the consequences would have been quite severe.
Whether this pandemic ends in a whimper or a bang has yet to be determined. The more we know, the more it seems a whimper is the more likely of the two. However, even if things do not end in a bang, we should be prepared to expect more cases and more deaths.
In fact, every winter the United States suffers approximately 36,000 deaths from the seasonal flu, albeit mostly in the elderly and ~100 deaths in young children. And thus, as with any seasonal flu outbreak, there will be expected deaths. However, this fact alone should not create fear.
The initial fear was that many of us have never encountered this new strain of flu either by actually catching it or by being vaccinated against it. Coupled with the fact that middle aged people were dying from the flu in Mexico, the media and public were led into a frenzy. However, as stated above, it seems the flu is milder than initially thought and that the original statistics out of Mexico may need to be revised.
If things do end in a whimper, one thing to be wary of is that the virus may mutate and come back with a vengeance this winter. This is not a certainty but a distinct possibility (as this is what happened to some extent with the 1918 outbreak).
Balancing the well being of the public is not for the faint of heart. It is often a damned if you do, damned if you don't position that I do not envy.
My point in writing about hurricanes is that like weather, pandemics (and epidemics) are difficult to predict and as such public guidance is a difficult task. Like medicine, public health is as much an art as it is a science, which involves the delicate juggling of statistics, public perception, fear, medical facts and politics (yes, unfortunately politics).
And as in medicine, when decisions are made, the potential benefits must be weighed with the potential risks as well as the potential costs to form a cost-beneficial plan that minimizes risk and maximizes the well-being of the public at large.
Unlike a hurricane threat, the great thing about a potential pandemic is that for the most part, conservative measures carry little risk or cost from an individual standpoint. Currently, the safest thing for a family to do is to stay put and avoid unnecessary interaction with others. At the very least avoiding large crowds - especially places where children spread a lot of germs - will decrease the risk of acquiring the H1N1 flu. Additionally, if your child is sick, there should be greater vigilance in keeping them at home.
Time.com, May 1, 2009
But when it comes to slowing the overall spread of a pandemic flu, the best thing we can do is keep sick people away from everyone else. It's called "social distancing," and studies of the deadly 1918 Spanish flu showed that cities that instituted distancing measures quickly suffered lower death tolls than cities that did nothing or reacted slowly.
Employing these measures, while somewhat constrictive socially, are easy to do and carry little risk or cost other than the potential for cabin fever!
Some mothers have asked me if they should keep their kids home from school. Until more is known (which may be as soon as this Monday - I would see how this unfolds over this weekend), for children in mother's day out programs and other elective-type school settings it might be a good idea. As for regular grade school, I believe that over the weekend the government will make that decision for us. They seem to be relatively conservative thus far in shutting school downs.
Other easy-to-employ protective measures include basic hygiene, which everyone should have a firm handle on by now.
An additional measure that may also be prudent will be to get the flu vaccine in the fall. Whether they add the swine flu H1N1 strain or not remains to be seen. One potential cost to receiving this vaccine is that during a different swine flu outbreak in 1976, a vaccine was mandated by the Ford administration. Within weeks, reports surfaced of people developing Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease that can be caused by the vaccine. By April, more than 30 people had died of the condition, in contrast to the one soldier that actually died from the virus. Note: this is NOT an issue with the current flu vaccine.
Extensive testing will need to be done to prepare a vaccine which avoids the pitfalls of the 1976 vaccine. And like everything else in medicine, the risks of this particular flu virus will need to be weighed against the potential harms of the vaccine. Speaking personally, I will almost certainly be getting the vaccine for myself and my family like I do every fall.
Besides the measures detailed above, here are a few other smart pointers from Time.com:
1. Don't Rush to the ER
With the cable news networks reporting nonstop on swine flu, it feels like the disease is lurking everywhere, and that your slightest sniffle is a sign that you've contracted the virus. That would explain why people with no outward symptoms of illness are flooding emergency rooms in swine flu–affected states, afraid that they might be sick. That's a really bad idea.
First of all, having to examine people who aren't really sick only stresses the already strained resources of hospitals that are trying to prepare for a pandemic. Plus, going to an emergency room unnecessarily may even pose a slight risk to you. In past outbreaks, including SARS in 2003, hospitals were actually loci of infections — all those sick people in close proximity — and the same could be true of swine flu.
If you actually have flu-like symptoms — a fever above 100° F, headache, sore throat, body aches, chills or fatigue — and you live in an area where there have been confirmed swine flu cases, by all means report to your doctor. Otherwise, leave the hospital to the sick people.
2. Don't Be Afraid to Eat Pork
On April 29, the CDC announced that swine flu would no longer be referred to as swine flu, but as the "2009 H1N1 flu." It's less catchy, but more accurate. For one thing, there is no evidence that this virus makes pigs really sick. And the H1N1 virus actually contains genes from swine, avian and human flus. The virus also cannot be spread through pork products — you can't contract swine flu by eating bacon, hot dogs or anything else that was once a pig. Nor will culling pigs, as authorities did in Egypt, do anything to stem the spread of the disease. H1N1 has jumped to humans and is passing easily from person to person, so it's now a human flu that needs to be controlled in us, not the pigs.
3. Don't Hoard Antivirals
The H1N1 virus has so far proven vulnerable to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which is good news. A cornerstone of the government's pandemic preparations was the stockpiling of 50 million doses of those drugs over the past few years, enough to ensure that doctors would be able to respond sufficiently to new outbreaks. But that capacity could be compromised if people begin stockpiling antivirals for their own use. Already there are reports of pharmacies running short of Tamiflu, and many hospitals in the U.S. have begun restricting the power to prescribe antivirals to just a few doctors. Also, the misuse or overuse of Tamiflu or Relenza by patients can promote resistance in the flu virus — effectively removing the only bullets from our gun.
Hopefully, after reading this (lengthy, I know!) blog you have a clearer understanding of the current H1N1 flu situation. However, please be advised that things may change rapidly in the very near future.
One final note: I have read a slightly alarmist email circulating that subtly recommends purchasing nutritional supplements from a Wimberley Pharmacy at the end of its message. I am not sure as to the validity of the facts in this email, but I am personally sticking to the guidance and facts put forth by the CDC and will not be purchasing any nutritional supplements to combat this flu virus.