Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Influenza A(H1N1) / Swine flu: 5,251 cases; 2,600 in America; 28 in Minnesota

At least, those are the numbers available to the public.

As of May 10, 2009, two days ago, there were, officially, 28 confirmed cases of H1N1 novel influenza / influenza A(H1N1) / new swine flu in Minnesota. Above the table that showed where the confirmed cases were, the Minnesota Department of Health wrote:

"The listed regions only represent areas where people have been tested and had positive results. There are many areas that we think have novel influenza H1N1 circulating but we have not done extensive testing. MDH is now focusing testing on severe cases. Therefore we will not identify most cases of novel influenza H1N1, particularly those with mild illness." (MDH)

That's consistent with a May 8, 2009, press release that said, in part:

"Effective immediately, MDH will no longer be posting data for 'specimens already tested by MDH' and 'specimens that still need to be tested'.

"The number of lab specimens in these two categories has always been highly fluid, and subject to change at least hourly. Anything posted on our Web site therefore becomes outdated very quickly...."

"...In addition, we are now only testing specimens for patients who have been hospitalized, so the ability to track influenza cases using this information will be even more limited in the future." (MDH)

That makes sense: it takes time to prepare and post information, and the Minnesota Department of Health has other things to do. I have to assume that the information updates have been suspended because there's no need for the public to know what's going on.

I'm old enough to remember the 'good old days,' when doctors routinely lied to patients about critical information - for the good of the patient, of course. 'No sense letting the mere layman fret,' and all that.

Times have changed. Information that's available suggests that the new swine flu may be no more serious than the 1957 pandemic. I'll be getting to that.

Hogs May be the Safest Minnesotans

As far as catching 'swine flue,' at any rate.

Hog farming is a significant part of Minnesota's economy, and we're no fools. Humans can catch diseases from pigs. But, at least as importantly, pigs can catch diseases from humans. And that's something no pig farmer wants.

Sick pigs are just about worthless.

So, we're protecting our hogs. Some places, people now have to shower before seeing pigs in this state. That's hog farmers, reporters: everybody. (CNN)

It's not all that new an idea, and sensible precautions aren't limited to hogs. Turkey barns east of town have signs up, warning people to stay away.

It's not protecting us from the livestock: it's protecting the livestock from us.

CDC Still Updating Influenza A(H1N1) Statistics

As of yesterday, America had 2,600 confirmed cases of swine flu, and three deaths. (CDC) I'm taking that as an officially estimated approximate number. The list shows seven cases in Minnesota.

Okay: Minnesota reported 28 cases, than said they wouldn't be reporting any more. The CDC, about the same time, says there are seven cases in Minnesota.

Seven simply does not equal 28. I don't know what's going on - the CDC and Minnesota might have different definitions about what they're counting, or the CDC data could be a little out of date.

Or, maybe we should multiply every number the CDC reports by four.

Probably not: I certainly hope we're not being 'protected' by being kept in the dark. I could be wrong, but I think people were able to deal with the real world back in the fifties, and that we're able to deal with reality now.

I certainly hope that the people in charge think so, too.

Influenza A(H1N1): New Swine Flu More Contagious

This year's new avian / human / swine flu, influenza A(H1N1), is nowhere near as lethal as it was in Mexico. I can't say that I'm disappointed.
New Influenza A(H1N1): More Contagious
On the other hand, this year's swine flu / influenza A(H1N1) is highly contagious, compared to your everyday flu.

With the run-of-the-mill seasonal flu, if you're in contact with someone who's sick, you have a 5% to 15% chance of getting the disease yourself - roughly one-in-eight odds. With influenza A(H1N1), the chances of your getting the new disease are 22% to 33%. That's roughly one-in-four or one-in-three odds. (WHO, via Bloomberg)

Influenza A(H1N1): a Killer in Mexico, Not So Much Elsewhere

The death rate for people with influenza A(H1N1) in Mexico was unusually high. And, the people killed were otherwise fairly healthy.

That's changed, since the virus left Mexico, but the World Health organization doesn't know why. The influenza viruses mutate easily, so that could be part of the explanation: or something else could be going on.

Influenza A(H1N1) and Poultry: Another Unknown

One more thing: Influenza A(H1N1) is a virus that already has DNA from avian, swine, and human flu species.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus is "firmly established" in poultry in parts of the world. Right now it isn't much of a problem, because humans don't get infected easily. But, if many people around the infected birds got influenza A(H1N1), and the new virus got inside the birds: we don't know what would happen. (WHO)

Let's Not be Upset With Health Agencies

People who are professionally involved with public health are in an awkward position. They're dealing with diseases that, in some cases, mutate rapidly. On top of that, people aren't all alike, and may get very sick - or not sick at all - when exposed to a new disease.

When something like this new influenza A(H1N1) virus, all they have to go by is the data from a few thousand cases, and past pandemics.

I'm sure that the people running WHO, the CDC, and Minnesota's Department of Health, would like to be absolutely, positively, sure of exactly what's going to happen next.

They don't.

What they do know is what's happened before. WHO pointed out that the 1957 pandemic started with a mild wave, then came back in a more lethal form. Same thing happened in 1918. (WHO)

This influenza A(H1N1) may be different: Maybe it won't kill many more people, and we can forget all about it. On the other hand, maybe it won't. Around 2,000,000 people died in the 1957 pandemic: and there are more people today.

I know: people die from ordinary influenza. Around 250,000 to 500,000 each year. (WHO, via Bloomberg)

And, right now, influenza A(H1N1) doesn't seem likely to do more damage than that.

Good news, as far as it goes.

I think it's probably a good idea, though, to assume that the people running health agencies around the world are trying to keep people from dropping dead in wholesale lots. Conspiracy theories about plots to take over the world are great in the movies: but that's entertainment.

Here in the real world, people can get sick and die. If being a bit more careful about washing hands can keep you alive, it's probably worth it.

Just a thought.

In the news: List of posts relating to Swine flu 2009; and list of background resources:

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