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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Swine Flu - Remarkable?

I was listening to NPR this morning, and they had a doctor (epidemiologist? immunologist? something like that) on to talk about Swine Flu (H1N1).

Now, there is a lot of coverage on Swine Flu lately, and I thought some of the things that the doctor said were very interesting.

  1. That Swine Flu and the Seasonal Flu have the same symptoms.
  2. That Swine Flu and the Seasonal Flu are treated using the same methods (fever reducer and fluids).
Now, you might forgive me for thinking at this point: what's the difference? If swine flu is no more dangerous, and is treated the same way, why the hullabaloo?

It turns out that the core difference is that the flu season has started early this year.

Interestingly, we had a relatively dry, cool summer. The areas that are being hardest hit (the south) had the driest summers. The flu spreads best in cold, dry environments. If you have been told that the flu has nothing to do with the weather, you've been misinformed.

Now, I'm not trying to imply causality here, but there's been so much misinformation, e.g. "57% of those tested showed positive for swine flu", that I thought I'd offer a possible explanation.

By the way, that statistic above? You probably didn't catch that 57% was the number of people who:

  1. Came to the hospital with flu-like symptoms
  2. Were tested (and they "selectively test"!). Selective testing means that they had severe symptoms and another compounding medical condition, like asthma.

You'll forgive me, then, for maybe thinking that the press is playing fast and loose with the numbers. And I love that the CDC publishes a map that shows "how geographically dispersed" the flu is. NO INDICATION OF SEVERITY. So a couple of cases, spread around == pandemic. Nuts.

Attribution: photo from Patrick Long

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