Swine Flu: Something Else That is Going to Kill Me!

A month from now, it would be interesting to see where things stand.

Keep this number in mind. 36,000! This is how many people die approximately each year in the United States from seasonal flu according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

I cannot help but think of everything in the last several years that have caused a panic or something that would wind up killing me. As a foot of snow fell in Memphis in March of this year on a Sunday morning, I was wondering about Al Gore and global warming. Snow in Memphis is anomaly, let alone a foot of it in March.

In my recent memory, I have been warned that I could be killed by birds, tomatoes from Mexico, SARS, killer bees, peanut butter, Big Macs, sunspots, and Dick Cheney hunting. But not everything is bad in Disasterville. I am sure in a down stock market that some people made good money as the stock of companies involved in making facemasks, antiviral medication, and hand sanitizer rose exponentially the morning that the alphabet news stations predicted a dire world-wild pandemic. As I am write this, I am listening to a CNN reporter's voice is rising to a fever pitch as he talks about suspected cases in 10 different states!

As I finished writing this there are over 1,000 cases in Mexico and 91 reported cases in the United States with one death of a small child in Dallas who was visiting relatives from Mexico City. My e-mail box is flooded with updates, people exchanging information, websites loaded with resource information, conference calls. There are interviews on television, press conferences, and news scrolling across bottom of the television news stations. Travel to Mexico is not advised and planes coming from such popular places like Cancun are being passively checked for anyone who might be sick.

A month from now, it would be interesting to see where things stand. Will all of this have died down, or will we be at a higher level of planning and preparation, or worse, will we will be a response mode.

This is a good question since this is a different type of flu. It is a combination of swine, human and bird genetics. This type of flu spreads the same way as the seasonal flu. Sneezes and coughs are the attributing factors for spreading the virus.

When you consider that 36,000 people die each year in the United States from the seasonal flu, is this all being hyped up by the media? Although, I am sure we will see more than one death from this swine flu, will it surpass the 36,000 that die each year from seasonal flu? Some theorize this will not occur. First, pandemics in the past occurred during the normal flu season. This swine flu has popped up at the end of the flu season. Some epidemiologists conjecture that this virus will spike and die off because flu viruses traditionally die off in the summer heat. If it is still hanging around by the fall when it would spike again, the same epidemiologist say there should be a vaccine by then.

Another factor that may limit the spread of this virus is that it is susceptible to drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza. Both of these drugs are stored in our Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). On April 27, the Food & Drug Administration released the SNS and it is being distributed throughout the United States.

We are better prepared than we were four years ago. Under the Bush administration, the federal government worked with manufacturers to accelerate vaccine development, stockpiled crucial antivirals like Tamiflu, war-gamed pandemic scenarios with senior officials, and increased the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) sample identification capabilities. These activities will all pay off if this swine flu hedges toward pandemic proportions.

Only the future will tell whether this turns into a pandemic. My bet is that this will not -- at least in the United States where we are much more medically sophisticated, better prepared and more knowledgeable now than we were with the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Asian Flu in 1957, or the Hong Kong Flu in 1968. If you look at the death tolls of each of these pandemics, they decreased as the century progressed and we became better with our scientific technology.

The only thing that can make this flu escalate to a pandemic in the United States is another country, that is in our backyard, with less technology and sophistication to deal with the problem, and we have a porous border with them. The more people with the flu who pour into our country, the local, state, and federal officials will have a hard time containing it.

In the meantime, don't sneeze on anyone, watch your hands, and be ever diligent.

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GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.