At any given point in time, the world, and our country in particular, is in crisis mode. The particular crises vary significantly and are often elevated by the media and our own paranoia to the point of being ridiculous.
Medical outbreaks have been a serious contributor to this worldwide crisis mode for a very long time, including everything from SARS to Mad Cow Disease to the new and improved H1N1 virus — the outbreak of today.
Very few of these diseases-on-alert ever amplify to the point of epidemic, however, as have the likes of HIV/AIDs or the ever-infamous black plague. Is this because of — or in spite of — the seemingly ridiculous over-awareness initially brought on to “prevent” the new illness?
I hear more about the H1N1 virus than I do about HIV/AIDS on any given day. How fair is that, considering how devastating we all know HIV/AIDS to be? The most important question is really whether H1N1 deserves the hype it is receiving, or if it is simply glorified because it makes a good news story.
The statistics on H1N1 are very interesting when analyzed — emphasis on analyzed. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization stopped keeping track of H1N1 infections and deaths back in July as the number of cases rose too high. We do have estimates, but the most accurate information is from three months ago.
It can seem very staggering when you see that the U.S. has accounted for about half of the swine flu deaths worldwide as of mid-July, or 170 out of 382. In regards to overall cases, the U.S. accounted for about 33,000 out of nearly 90,000 in the world, with the next highest occurrence in Mexico at about 10,000 cases. However, overall populations and percentages must be taken into account. The U.S. has a population of 300 million people, while Mexico is home to 100 million. So, realistically, Mexico and the U.S. have had almost the same rate of H1N1 outbreak (as Mexico has one citizen for every three American citizens, and one outbreak of H1N1 for every three American cases).
Also, the regular flu must be taken into account. Every year in the U.S., there are more than 36,000 deaths as a direct result of influenza. This places it in the top 10 causes of death for our country. It is already deadly, so why are we so hyped up now that there is a “new” strain that has killed less than 0.3 percent of what the regular flu kills every year?
The answer is because it is not so new. There have been H1N1 outbreaks before. The most notable was in 1918, when the virus affected 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population at the time. It ended up killing between 10 and 20 percent of those infected.
Since its most recent revival, H1N1 has grown significantly, and it does not seem to be slowing down. Articles report more and more cases each day. The Centers of Disease Control estimates that there have now been over one million people infected in the U.S. alone. This number is 30 times what it was in July, our most accurate statistics.
H1N1, in its current form, seems to have killed about 0.5 percent of its infected population in the U.S. and 0.4 percent worldwide. The world has seen it affect a third of its population before. If that were to happen today, it would affect 2.2 billion people and from recent statistics, we can estimate it would therefore kill 8.8 million people worldwide. If it were to be so strong as to kill 10 to 20 percent of its infected population as it did in 1918, the number of casualties would rise to an insane 220-440 million.
This is, of course, an extreme and highly unlikely example. However, I have been swayed from my former skepticism. Perhaps with all the overexposure the virus is receiving, it can be prevented from affecting the world in such a devastating way.
As we have seen, even with all of the media coverage the virus has received, the number of H1N1 infections is growing. This can certainly be prevented, so let’s try and do so. It is the individual’s responsibility to prevent himself or herself from getting the virus, whether it is by getting flu shots, which comforts some, or by simply washing one’s hands with hot water.
H1N1 has disastrous potential, evidenced by past and present statistics. We need to use that knowledge as well as our current resources to prevent unnecessary deaths. Even besides that, no one I know wants to be laid up for weeks vomiting, coughing, sneezing, and with the chills.
I’m not recommending that anyone lock themselves in a sterile room and not leave. Attend school, attend work, and go about your business, but be aware that the virus is in circulation and you are vulnerable to it. Take your vitamin C before flying and avoid the sniffly passerby. After all, in the U.S., California ranks fifth in the number of H1N1 cases, and we are second in number of deaths only to New York.
For information on preventing H1N1, and the symptoms to watch out for, visit http://www.disabled-world.com/health/influenza/swine-flu/.