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Swine Flu: Separating Fact from Hype

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Our British colleagues at the Alliance for Natural Health offer the following savvy analysis of the swine flu pandemic. (We have edited their article for length, but we invite you to read the original in its entirety at their website.)

“Swine flu” is a new strain of the H1N1 influenza A virus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms has never been detected before in either pigs or humans. A strain of the same virus was responsible for the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which was responsible for the death of between 20 and 50 million people around the world (some estimates go as high as 100 million). Is it reasonable to fear that this strain will be similarly virulent?

The H1N1 virus is also responsible for the cases of influenza and pneumonia we see every winter—what one might call “regular influenza.” And this basic strain also jumped to humans from birds or pigs back in the early 20th century. Its annual death rate in the US is around 32 per 100,000. This, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), makes it the sixth leading cause of death in the United States following heart disease, cancer, stroke, unintentional injuries, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (This list does not include healthcare, which is itself a leading cause of death.) If you then convert this flu death rate to a daily death rate, you’ll find that on average, taking into account even the non-influenza seasons when death rates are substantially lower, around 270 people in the US die from this “regular influenza” virus every single day.
In contrast, as of May 11, 2009, the CDC has reported 2,532 confirmed cases of swine flu since its outbreak in late March, with only three deaths. Over the same period, Mexico has reported 48 deaths, from 2,062 confirmed cases. There have been only 53 confirmed deaths worldwide from swine flu.
In short, there are little basis on which to claim that swine flu represents a massive threat, particularly when it has caused far fewer deaths than the common “garden-variety” seasonal flu virus does every year. Experts like Prof. Wendy Barclay, chair of influenza virology at Imperial College, London, are referring to this recent bout as a “mild strain” and “of no particular concern.”
Of far greater concern are the efforts to prevent the virus from spreading; hype can easily lead to catastrophe. In the swine flu epidemic of 1976, for example, more people were harmed by the efforts to deal with the virus—notably vaccination—than they were by the virus itself, which remained fairly non-virulent.
One particular problem was the increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) among the more than 40 million Americans who received swine flu immunizations. The syndrome causes paralysis from the legs upward as a result of a response in the immune system which attacks the nerve sheaths. The condition may be fatal, while others may be left permanently paralyzed. It is estimated that some 500 vaccinated people developed GBS, and of these, 25 died. This means that vaccinated persons were between 4 and 8 times more likely to get GBS.
In response to the current swine flu outbreak, vaccine manufacturers are already increasing sales of their current flu vaccines worldwide, despite the fact that they will have little effect on a mutated form of H1N1. Soon they’ll be able to “upgrade” future seasonal flu vaccines by incorporating swine flu, and governments will no doubt try to persuade even more people to be vaccinated.
Who else would benefit from a worldwide panic? Stock prices for drug manufacturers Roche and GSK, makers of the anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, are already soaring. But it’s not because of swine flu drugs, as one might expect. Following the bird flu scare of 2006, many countries stockpiled antiviral drugs in preparation for an epidemic that never came. Now those drugs are approaching the end of their shelf life, so they need to be replaced—which gives pharma ample funding for research and manufacture of the new swine flu drug.
Yet Tamiflu’s potential side effects are rarely discussed: diarrhea, inflammation of the lungs, sinusitis, bronchitis, aggravation of pre-existing asthma, nosebleeds, ear disorders, inflammation of the skin, swelling of the lymph nodes, conjunctivitis, and an increased risk of seizures, confusion, hallucinations, and/or abnormal behavior during their illness.
However, there is no need for panic over the swine flu itself. The Alliance for Natural Health recommends you keep a watchful eye on reliable media sources about its spread and, in particular, its virulence. If the virus is decreasing rather than increasing in virulence, there is really nothing to worry about. To see official figures about confirmed cases, go to the WHO’s swine influenza pages and read its regular updates. And, perhaps most importantly, keep your immune system in tip-top shape (see ANH’s Food4Health campaign page and the recommendations about natural products given in their 2006 avian influenza report).

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