Yesterday New York reported two more swine flu deaths (a 41-year-old woman from Queens and a 34-year-old man from Brooklyn). CDC and just about everyone else who knows anything about influenza have been telling people to expect this. The influenza virus kills people all the time. We don’t know exactly how many but we know that many people die of various immediate and underlying causes that wouldn’t have died at that time if they hadn’t become infected with the influenza virus in the period prior to their demise. Influenza is like heart disease or diabetes or cigarette smoking: a major cause of mortality that we have become used to. As long as it is described in terms of familiar seasonal influenza the public is all right with it — until they get a good dose of this really miserable illness. Meanwhile New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is getting a taste of what can happen when you minimize the seriousness of a disease that always deserves great respect:
A day after Mayor Bloomberg told reporters that those with swine flu are “lucky” because it’s a mild strain, he struck a more sympathetic tone, urging anyone with medical problems to seek help if they feel ill.
“As the virus spreads through the city and through this country and around the world, these deaths sadden us, but I don’t think they take us by surprise,” he said. ‘That doesn’t, however, lessen the loss of loved ones.” (Carrie Melago, New York Daily News)
This “mild strain” has now killed four New Yorkers in less than a month and put 131 of the 330 confirmed cases in the hospital — and those numbers are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg. If this were a food poisoning or an industrial accident it would make headlines in every newspaper in the country.
I have some minor complaints about CDC’s messaging (it is false that 36,000 people die of flu every year; no one is served by repeating a falsehood), but I think for the most part they have done it right. Be straightforward about what plausibly might happen and what we do and don’t know. The differences between New York’s messaging and CDC’s have been relatively small but important. They involve tone and the seriousness with which they take the situation. I want to think that this is mainly Bloomberg and not his health commissioner, Thomas Frieden (who will take over as the next CDC Director in June).
I guess we’ll see pretty soon. Fingers crossed.