Fears of a Swine Flu Pandemic Increase as the Virus Goes Global

By Eliza Strickland | April 27, 2009 8:43 am

swine fluThe swine flu outbreak that began in Mexico over the past few weeks has gone global, spread to new continents by infected air travelers returning from Mexico. Confirmed cases have been reported in the United States, Canada, and Spain, while suspected cases are being investigated in France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Israel, and New Zealand. Amid fears that a global pandemic is in the offing, governments around the world are taking new precautions. Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America [AP]. 

The situation remains worst in Mexico City, where many schools and public buildings are closed and doctors have warned citizens to wear face masks and avoid crowds. The virus is believed to have killed 103 people in Mexico, and sickened at least 1,600. But so far, the cases reported elsewhere in the world haven’t been as deadly.

A 23-year-old Spanish man has tested positive for swine flu, and at least 17 further suspected cases are under investigation in Spain…. The patients concerned had all recently returned from Mexico. None of the cases is thought to be life threatening [BBC News]. There are now 20 confirmed cases in the United States, including eight associated with a New York City elementary school where some students had recently been to Mexico for spring break. While the United States has declared the outbreak a public health emergency, health officials note that all the U.S. cases thus far have been mild, with no deaths reported.

Swine flu typically infects just a few people each year who have been in direct contact with pigs, but now the virus has mutated into a form that can be transmitted from person to person. Experts say it isn’t yet clear how much of a threat the virus poses. Says World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley: “These are early days. It’s quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally…. But we honestly don’t know,” he added. “We don’t know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done” [AP].

Martin Cetron of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most important question to answer is how many mild cases Mexico has had. “We may just be looking at the tip of the iceberg, which would give you a skewed initial estimate of the case fatality rate,” he said, meaning that there might have been tens of thousands of mild infections [in addition to the 1,600 serious cases and about 100 deaths]. If that is true, as the flu spreads, it would not be surprising if most cases were mild…. Another hypothesis, Dr. Cetron said, is that some other factor in Mexico increased lethality, like co-infection with another microbe or an unwittingly dangerous treatment [The New York Times].

While some infectious disease experts are scrambling to determine how the virus spreads and whether it is mutating into either a more lethal or less dangerous form, others are trying to work out how to best protect people from the illness. Tests at the CDC suggest that the flu shots many Americans and Europeans got this season probably don’t offer protection against the new swine flu virus…. This has big implications: It means scientists and vaccine makers have to gear up as fast as they can to make a new vaccine that specifically protects against the new swine flu virus [NPR].

Related Content:
80beats: Deadly Swine Flu Outbreak in Mexico City Prompts Fears of a Pandemic
80beats: Bird Flu in Egypt and Swine Flu in California Raise Guarded Concerns

Image: flickr / sarihuella

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Barb Lamont

    In 1918:

    In large U.S cities, more than 10,000 deaths per week were attributed to the virus. It is estimated that as many as 50% of the population was infected, and ~1% died. To compare, in “normal” (interpandemic) years, it is estimated that between 10-20% of the population is infected, with a .008% mortality.

    The fact the current ‘swine flu’ has shown to be contagious is alarming. So far the virus has shown to have a 6% to 6.3% mortality rate. It may not seem like much, but please consider the following: The deadly influenza panic in 1918 had a mortality rate of under 1%.

    This virus went on to kill tens of thousands of healthy people a day in large cities and up to 100 million people world wide.

    Viruses, like this strain of swine flu, kill their host by over-stimulating active immune systems that are robust and healthy. That is why the victims in Mexico were between the ages of 20 and 45.

    Some have said that no one in the United States have died from the virus, so we need not worry. Experts say it is only a matter of time. The virus is not prevalent enough to reach statistical significance in the United States, with only a handful of confirmed cases. 93.7% of all Mexicans with the virus recovered.

    More cause for worry: The 1918 virus started off ‘mild’ before it mutated into a raging storm. It also does not mean we will see millions of deaths. It is too early to draw sweeping conclusions. Nevertheless, there is potential for a disastrous pandemic. If 50% of Americans catch this flu in the next two years, and the mortality rate stays at 6.3%, we would witness 20+ million deaths.

    This strain of virus is more potent and more deadly than the virus that hammered the world in 1918 and 1919. Viruses come in waves. There are striking similarities to this virus and the virus that killed up to 100 million people in 1918. The first wave is historically more mild than the later waves.

    In addition to this virus becoming more severe, it is mutating faster than previous virus that we have seen. In addition, this virus is nothing like we have ever seen before because it combines features from viruses natural in different parts of the globe. We are in uncharted territory.

    If it follows the same path as the 1918 flu, we will see very damaging results. However, we must remember we are a global society now and the virus can spread quicker than we have ever witnessed in history. This is very concerning especially since the drugs we have now seem resistant.

    While there have been no deaths in America, it is shadowed by the fact the common variable among the deaths seem to be age. While most American cases have involved the very young and very old (under 10 and over 50) the Mexican cases that ended fatally involved the robust and healthy (over 20 and under 45).

    This virus kills the host by over-stimulating the immune system. The term that is used when the immune system over reacts is called a Cytokine Storm. It is usually fatal. During this “Storm” over 150 inflammatory mediators are released. This would account for the high mortality rate in 1918-19.

    http://tinyurl.com/d2te2f

  • Brian M

    Barb,
    Well aren’t you just all sweetness and light.
    b

  • Adam C

    He’s panicked. Most of what he is saying is unfounded and based on wiki-surfing. The “facts” he’s presenting are simply unfounded. For example, “there is a 6.3% mortality rate.” Purely fictional. In fact, the WHO has a fact sheet on the illness and quote a high morbidity and low mortality. Please understand that for every confirmed case there are likely dozens of unconfirmed or simply unreported cases. Don’t use the data from confirmed deaths (which is generally more accurate) against the data for confirmed cases–which is usually entirely inaccurate. You will have skewed results every time.

    Moreover, the 1918 strain and the current strain aren’t even somewhat close at this point. There is no evidence of cytokine storms in patients, patients are presenting with blue skin etc. They just aren’t the same or similar. And even if it were or they become similar we are far better equipped to deal with them than we were in 1918.

    Stop panicking. The scariest part is the fear. People get sick. It happens.

  • Adam C

    Correction: Patients AREN’T presenting with blue skin. (As was the case with the 1918 avian/human flu strain.)

  • Sarah

    Can someone explain how viruses evolve with porcine, avian, and human strains? I’d like to have a better understanding of this from someone who has experience working with diseases.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Is there any way to know if this virus has been genetically modified or even created?

  • Tacoma

    Relax. If you get sick and die, what of it? It’s not like you’re going to be around a hundred years from now anyway. If anything you’re saved the pain of a long infirmity in your 80s (assuming you take care of yourself, I see plenty of infirm people in their 60s). And it’s not like your life will have an impact on everyone else. You won’t be remembered for anything and your children will be just as boring and pointless. Life is all about enjoying what’s going on and it soon ends regardless of your actions.

  • John

    There is nothing to fear but hype itself.

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