Why you need to calm down about swine flu

    Nervous about the swine flu? Calm down, have a mint. Photo by Julie Beck / North By Northwestern.

    You’ve heard the news reports. You’ve received the emergency plans from the university. Your mom has begged you not to eat any more bacon. Now that kid down the hall is coughing and all you can think is, “Am I going to die?”

    Swine flu paranoia is spreading across campus like — well, like swine flu. It did not help that a suspected case was reported at Loyola University, or that NU Emergency Management sent out a frighteningly vague e-mail hinting at unspecific “plans and procedures in place to ensure an effective response.” Soon, we sense, the swine epidemic will be storming campus, the school will shut down and students will be sent home for the summer. Right?

    Hold on a second. Take a deep breath. Turn off CNN. This is not a science fiction movie, and swine flu is not as serious as the media and word of mouth make it sound. Before you get wrapped up in the school-closing, Tamiflu-hoarding, mask-wearing frenzy that is sweeping the nation, examine the facts. Once you know the truth about little Babe’s cold, you’ll realize you have nothing to fear.

    First, it is not as widespread right now as you might think. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, there are 99 suspected cases in Illinois, 63 of which are in Cook County or the city of Chicago. “Suspected” is government-speak for “misleading term meant to scare the public.” The number of Illinois cases that the IDPH knows are definitively swine flu? Nine.

    The difference between “suspected” and “confirmed” cases is absurdly big, and for good reason: “suspected” cases show symptoms which are indistinguishable from the good old-fashioned seasonal flu. This would be like if I tried to label cars as “suspected Chevy Malibus” by picking out all the sedans in a parking lot. When Mexico looked more closely at its hundreds of suspected cases, less than half turned out to be swine flu. For all we know, there could be only three cases of swine flu in all of Illinois, and the rest simply the seasonal flu.

    Even when you look at the broader figures, the problem is not as bad as it sounds. There are 898 confirmed cases worldwide, 226 of them in the U.S. To put this into perspective, less than one out of every million people in the U.S. has swine flu. The World Health Organization has confirmed reports in Europe, South America and Asia, but don’t worry if the news starts calling it a “pandemic.” All this means is that the virus is spreading in more than one WHO-regulated region, and doesn’t necessarily indicate the apocalyptic consequences it seems to suggest.

    Secondly, this flu is not as unique as it sounds. Authorities were concerned because it is a recent recombination of bird, swine and human flu. New viruses have the potential to be dangerous (think SARS, Avian Flu). Yet further analysis has shown that the virus contains the same binding proteins of the seasonal flu virus, also a strain of the H1N1 virus. This means the virus will likely have the same symptoms, the same modes of transmission, and the same mortality rate as the seasonal strain. It will also be treated by the same medications, like Tamiflu.

    For those of you hoping for a 28 Days Later-type super plague, I’m sorry to say that the government has this one under control.

    “Wait,” you are saying to the inanimate computer screen in front of you, “if swine flu has the same symptoms, proteins and cure as the seasonal H1N1 flu, why don’t we call it that?” Well, dear reader, that is exactly what the CDC has started calling it. The first strain of H1N1 appeared in 1918 and killed millions of people worldwide. Where did it come from? You guessed it: pigs. Since then, it has been mutating every few years into new, though less severe, forms. Both the seasonal flu and the swine flu are descendants of the 1918 flu, and if WHO hadn’t jumped the gun and given it a catchy porcine name, we may just be calling them both “the flu.”

    Finally, swine flu is not as dangerous as it sounds. Unlike bird flu, it does not affect the lungs, which increases the risk of severe illness and pneumonia. Instead, it attacks the nose and throat, making it easier to spread but much less deadly. For instance, seasonal H1N1 virus kills about 0.1% of those infected every year. That means if there are 96 flu cases in Illinois, we can expect about one tenth of one person to die. Be on the lookout for a Loyola student who is missing his left foot.

    “But what about the 19 swine flu deaths in Mexico?” you ask. Well, says the New York Times, the high death toll south of the border may be a result of the “eclectic approach to health care in Mexico,” which includes homeopathic medicine, self-proscribed antibiotics, and “mysterious vitamin injections.” All of these end up delaying proper treatment and increasing the likelihood of serious illness. The lesson: in the unlikely event you get sick, bite the bullet and head down to Searle, where mysterious vitamin injections are generally frowned upon.

    As for eating pork, fire up the frying pan: Scientists have yet to find any pigs infected with the virus, and there is no risk of infection from properly prepared pork. “Swine flu” is little more than a generic name for a certain kind of strain. Bacon fans have nothing to fear.

    So there you have it. The mysterious Mexican human-bird-pig influenza super-plague has been demystified, and nobody had to call Dr. House. Wash your hands, enjoy a nice pulled-pork sandwich, and try not to act so paranoid. You are about as likely to see pigs fly as you are to get swine flu.


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