Fear, media, and Flu
At first I thought it might be free-all-you-can-eat-desert day at the Indian Casinos. Then I thought it might be Spring Fever, as this is the first summer-like day we’ve had this year so far.
It wasn’t until my boss asked me to change the sign in front of the clinic that I really understood what had happened. I was to take down the announcement of the impending “shots for tots” campaign and replace it with the toll free FLU HOTLINE number.
Ah. Swine Flu Fear. My patients aren’t doing the all-you-can-eat chocolate cream pie. They are not lying in the sun, or drinking beer and playing horse shoes.
They are locked in their homes afraid to come to a place where sick people are likely to be.
OK. I understand. I can live with that.
But should we be scared?
That’s a good question, so I guess if it is a question at all, it is OK to be scared. As I write this my state is yet to have a confirmed case of Swine Flu. That may change by tomorrow as today we had a young Mexican girl who is visiting family come in. She had a high temperature, body aches, and respiratory distress. We did a rapid flu test on her and she was positive. That means she does have some kind of flu. Could be Asian. Could be Swine. Could be Bird, Hippo, Mongoose, or Rattlesnake flu for all we know.
The Swine Flu, lucky for everyone, will give you a positive for strain “A” run-of-the-mill flu on a rapid test. To determine if she has Swine Flu will take tests more sophisticated than we can do in rural non-profit medicine. In fact, many metro hospitals probably can’t do it either. But her blood is off to the powers-that-be and we may be on CNN before you know it.
How bad is Swine Flu? Remember that I don’t work for the Centers for Disease Control, but here’s my take on it, for what it’s worth.
Garden variety flu kills somewhere around 36,000 Americans every year. That’s why we are always telling you to get your fricken flu shot. It tends to take out the very young, the very old, and the chronically ill. That would be you and me.
36,000? Good Lord, by comparison, 31,000 Americans were killed last year in traffic accidents. You are more likely to die of garden variety flu than behind the wheel of your car.
Swine Flu has taken out somewhere around 200 folks. Probably. Maybe. And on top of that unknown is the larger unknown: we have no clue what-so-ever how many people were infected. That’s where fear comes in. Does this new flu kill 1% of those who get it, or 4% of those who get it? With a new bug for which we have no immunity and few tools to fight it with, even differences of a half-percent can make a huge difference in global body count.
Swine Flu also seems to strike the middle, folks ranging 20-40, rather than the young and the old. Odd. But we’ve seen this before. Right after World War I. Spanish Flu, which also hit the young and strong, killed about 50 million people worldwide. The morality rate has been estimated between 2.5% and 5%. That’s a pretty wide gap because no one really knows how many folks were infected.
The same is true in Mexico City, which is a very, very, very, very crowed place. One of the most crowded in the world.
If I had to put money on it, I’d guess that Swine Flu is no worse than the average flu of 0.1% because, to my way of thinking, if it were a killer like the Spanish Flu we’d have a lot more bodies in Mexico.
This is a vivid demonstration of how dangerous Mother Nature can be when she’s pissed off. Spanish Flu spread to every corner of the globe in an era of steam ships, wood and cloth bi-planes that could hardly carry two people half way across a state, and at a time when most folks still traveled by horse and buggy. Now we travel so freely, so fastly that we may as well be blood cells in one giant global body. The gene was out of the bottle before anyone even knew the bottle was found.
All of this said, let us not forget the pain and suffering even a single death brings to the victim’s loved ones. Each and every single death is a tragedy, a story unfinished, a painting not yet complete.
I don’t think we need to live in fear of Swine Flu, but with any flu, we need to live in caution. Wash your damn hands. Go to your doctor if you feel sick. Don’t share drinking glasses. Cover your mouth when you cough. Basically, live your life like you were in kindergarten.
Kindergarten rules. Also good rules for a civilized and healthy society.