Although there are relatively few cases of swine flu, there is already talk of a pandemic. While the news media continues to hype up the situation (fear motivates people to watch the news) various governments are taking action to prepare for the worst. Naturally, this situation raises a multitude of questions.
As this is being written, the situation is mostly one of terrible potential rather than terrible actuality. Except, of course, for the people who have already died of swine flu. As the news agencies point out, the “normal” flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year and this strain has yet to kill anyone in the United States. Sadly, the same is not true in Mexico. Of course, we do not know how deadly this strain is-there are not yet enough cases to determine this.
While the current swine flu (a previous strain made the news back in the 1970s) is an exotic flu that combines elements from swine, avian and human flus, this need not entail that the flu will be especially deadly. It is, of course, natural to be afraid that such a seemingly exotic strain will be some sort of superbug, but this need not be the case. As experts in disease always point out, super deadly strains generally do not spread that well (a host that dies quickly does not spread the disease as far). Milder strains tend to spread quite well because the hosts live and are not incapacitated. With any luck, this strain is fairly mild: while this means that more people will be sick, hopefully this will mean fewer deaths.
Of course, modern travel technology means that rather dangerous strains can spread fairly far. To be a bit scary, imagine a disease that kills in 8 hours. That would be enough time for an infected person to get across the United States or into other countries. The plague that devastated Europe was spread, in part, by the high tech transport of the day: ships. Today we have far faster means of transport and this enables a disease that appears in Mexico to be transported to New York in a matter of hours. This is, of course, very bad.
There are, of course, good reasons to be worried. As noted above, the “normal” flu kills 36,000 Americans a year (at least according to CNN). A new strain of flu, like the swine flu, might be deadlier. At the very least, being a new strain means that our immune systems might be ill prepared to deal with it.
Fortunately, governments seem to be taking the right steps to deal with the situation. Of course, some might wonder why there is such concern when other diseases have been ravaging the world without comparable concern. The cynical might note that swine flu is something that threatens Western countries as well, rather than merely being a problem for the third world.
So far, there is no reason to panic. The smart thing to do is follow the sensible advice given by medical professionals: avoid known areas of infection, wash your hands often, minimize your contact with other people, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and seek medical help if you start exhibiting symptoms. As noted above, those who have received treatment for swine flu in the United States have recovered quickly and completely. So far, at least.