White Coat Underground

Influenza—virus, not magic

With all the news abuzz about swine flu, it’s important to remember a few things. Influenza can be very, very dangerous, but it’s still just a virus, and one that we know quite well. There have been a number of flu pandemics in the last century, the most famous (and most deadly) being the “Spanish flu” of 1918-1919. That pandemic was a perfect storm. Soldiers moved back and forth between Europe and the U.S., and military bases in the U.S. weren’t much better than the Western Front. Soldiers on U.S. bases lived in crowded, cold, wet conditions, and the flu moved through them rapidly, spreading to surrounding civilian populations.

Our yearly flu season kills somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 Americans yearly. Most of those who die are very old, very young, or very sick. The Spanish flu epidemic was different. It struck down young, otherwise healthy people, and it killed them quickly.

So far we have very little data on the current flu outbreak. It does appear to be hitting healthier people, but it is far to early to make any judgments. We are far better prepared to handle a pandemic, should one emerge, than we were 90 years ago. Medicine has improved over time.

So,follow the news, don’t panic, and pay attention to the advice of local health authorities, if it should become relevant. At this point, most Americans don’t need to change a thing, other than paying more attention to the news.


  1. #1 Ben
    April 26, 2009

    This can’t affect you if you don’t eat Pork products, correct?

  2. #2 awh
    April 26, 2009

    Ben, read the previous post on the swine flu. It can still affect you.

  3. #3 Tam
    April 27, 2009

    Amusingly, the latest xkcd comic (targeting swine flu hysteria) showed up in my feedreader immediately above this post.


    I particularly enjoyed the last ‘tweet’.

  4. #4 Paholaisen Asianajaja
    April 27, 2009

    “At this point, most Americans don’t need to change a thing, other than paying more attention to the news.”

    I think I spot a problem.

  5. #5 Denice Walter
    April 27, 2009

    How will woo-meisters capitalize on fear of this virus?((the following is a public service announcement*))A well-known woo-doer, on his noontime fiasco(WNYE radio)today, gave recommendations about swine flu:including promulgating distrust of vaccines, Tamiflu,the CDC, doctors,and masks, giving a long list of “preventive measures” from the natural “pharmacopaeia”(e.g. wild oregano oil, garlic,olive leaf extract,peppermint oil, etc.),as well as advocating ozone therapy, colloidal silver,vitamin C,quercitin, etc.,and generally,providing unfounded speculation( genetic engineering, any one?). ((*this message was brought to you by the F.Walter foundation for the preservation of intelligence and sanity in the public media:”Because we care”))

  6. #6 Michael Simpson
    April 27, 2009


    Based on no evidence whatsoever, I’m going to guess that if this “epidemic” does happen, everyone will go through the typical 3-7 day course of disease. Some will have mild symptoms, and be back to doing things in a few days, some will take longer. I hope I’m right.

    The woo-meisters (who invented that term?) will tell everyone that those individuals who followed their recommendations got better. Of course, almost everyone will get better, without much intervention, other than a good matzo-ball soup (I’m stocking up, just in case).

    Oh, and you forgot about zinc.

  7. #7 Katie
    April 27, 2009

    According to the statistics I’ve seen, the death rate for swine flu is considerably lower than it is for the “normal” flu – and that’s in a third world country. And it doesn’t count all of the people who weren’t even sick enough to go to the hospital to be reported. And many of these cases haven’t even been confirmed swine flu…

  8. #8 Whitecoat Tales
    April 27, 2009

    At this point, most Americans don’t need to change a thing, other than paying more attention to the news.

    I’m still telling people to wash their hands more.
    I mean it wouldn’t be an issue if we washed our hands like they should to begin with, but nowhere near enough people do!

  9. #9 catgirl
    April 29, 2009

    I wish people would care as much about the regular flu as they do about the Swine Flu. I hate it when people come into work sick because it’s “just the flu”.

  10. #10 PalMD
    April 29, 2009

    Yes, good point. I always tell people to stay home, and we need to get better at that.

  11. #11 khan
    April 30, 2009

    –I always tell people to stay home, and we need to get better at that.–

    We then run into another social problem: How can I stay home from work when sick, if I don’t have medical leave, and can’t afford that loss of pay?

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