Mike the Mad Biologist

Probably not. I have no idea how serious this swine flu outbreak will be. As I noted yesterday, it could evolve to cause less severe symptoms or more severe symptoms–right now, nobody knows for certain. But I find the possible overreaction by the public to be disturbing (I think the public health system has adopted the right tone–and kudos, in part, to Richard Besser. Gerbeding who?). Why?

Every year, roughly 36,000 people die from seasonal (or annual influenza). That’s double HIV/AIDS deaths. But nobody gets paranoid about handwashing (WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS!!). There’s no serious awareness of ‘coughing’ hygiene. It’s just shrugged off, even though a successful vaccination strategy would save tens of thousands of lives. Clearly, nobody cares about these deaths: if the public as a whole did care, vaccination would be a sacrament.

But suddenly TEH SWINEY FLOO emerges and suddenly everybody becomes a public health maven. I don’t mean to downplay the potential seriousness of this particular influenza, but, so far, it’s in roughly the same mortality ballpark as most other influenzas. There needs to be vigilance, but, if this influenza burns out (or even if it doesn’t), we’ll still have to deal with the seasonal influenza pandemic (which is what it should be called).

I would hope that swine flu could be used as a ‘teachable moment’ to educate the public about how they can help limit the spread of annual influenza through handwashing. I would also hope the public might realize just how important vaccination is–funny how not having a vaccine makes people a little less susceptible to anti-vaxxer bullshit.

But I’m not going to hope these things because I don’t think they will happen.



  1. #1 addie
    April 29, 2009

    I also hope this becomes a teachable moment about intensive livestock operations. These places turn pigs into mushroom-like creatures, unable to move, stuck together in the dark, filled with antibiotics and ractopamine. Oh, and then a weird flu breaks out? Now, where did that come from?
    Note too that the barns are already burning–strange coincidence, what with the sharp decline in pork sales, hmmmm? 11,000 pigs went up in flames on April 22nd. 11,000 pigs in one place, caged and unable to escape the fire. Unreal.

    Thanks for your great blog, by the way.

  2. #2 Markk
    April 29, 2009

    Part of it is that people hear these 36000 a year numbers and go, wait a minute, I don’t know anyone who died of flu. So this becomes a BS number. Their grandma who died at 88 of flu who was already in bad health they don’t consider a flu death. She was old and hurting and would die of something. How many otherwise healthy, non-elderly (under standard life expectancy say) die of flu? That is the number people will jump up about.

  3. #3 Toby Marotta
    April 29, 2009

    Vast numbers of private healthcare practitioners and health educators have for decades recommended that men and women reduce their risk of bacterial STDs by washing involved body parts after engaging in sex. Leading private AIDS experts –see for example Bartlett and Finkbeiner, in successive editions of their “The Guide to Living with HIV Infection,” (Johns Hopkins U Press)have since 1994 recommended complementing condom use with post-sex washing for preventive purposes. The dean of STD researchers in the U.S.A., King K. Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., has recently produced and published scientific studies ascertaining that men who wash their penises after intercourse greatly reduce their risk of HIV infections. Strategic washing is probably the oldest approach to preventing lots of human infections. Perhaps the current popularizing of hand-washing to prevent Swine Flu infections will finally bring this information to popular light.

  4. #4 anniegee
    April 30, 2009

    And don’t we so love to demonize health scares we think originated in other countries? Seasonal influenza is a good old American disease, but the public can attach swine flu to Mexico and add a dash of xenophobia to their panic! It feels just like the good old days of the African killer bee.

  5. #5 skippy
    April 30, 2009

    how to avoid the flu: don’t do what this kid is doing

  6. #6 kelly
    April 30, 2009

    I have a friend who’s a nursin the USA. For past 2 days (Tues and Wed) the Emergency Room was packed with people. But not one of them had colds or symptoms of Swine Flu.

    So what’s the disease? FEAR OF SWINE FLU disease!

  7. #7 Eric
    April 30, 2009


    In 1976 one person died from Swine Flu, a gung-ho private in the armed forces who went on a long hike with a 50lb pack at the height of his flu symptoms. Thirty people died, and hundreds had Guillain-Barre syndrome from the vaccine given for the swine flu when it was ready. I don’t see this as “anti-vaxxer bullshit”. At least in 1976 you could sue the vaccine maker. Now you can’t sue the vaccine makers, you sue the goverment through the childhood vaccine injury act. The average time to get a settlement is about a decade, so you are incapacitated, or have loss of income for a spouse, or have to care for, or pay for care, for 10 years before you see a dime. Then they hard ball you before your trial date for a reduced settlement. This all assumes you have the health care to pay for the tests to get to this point and can find an attorney in this area of law. I don’t see these burdens as ‘bullshit’. This is a rational arguement.

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