Sunday, May 17, 2009

Swine Flue in New York City: Assistant Principal Wiener's Dead

"New York principal's death linked to flu virus, hospital says"
CNN (May 17, 2009)

"An New York middle school assistant principal who was hospitalized with the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, died Sunday apparently from flu complications, a hospital spokesman said.

"Mitchell Weiner, 55, assistant principal at Intermediate School 238 in Queens, died at 6:17 p.m. Sunday, Flushing Hospital spokesman Andrew Rubin said.

" 'We believe he had complications of the swine flu,' Rubin told CNN Radio, adding that once Weiner was admitted to the hospital, he was listed in critical condition. However, he wouldn't say whether Rubin had any pre-existing medical conditions...."

Things can happen fast, where influenza A(H1N1) is involved. The same article started this way, about an hour ago:

"Assistant principal dies after being hospitalized with H1N1 virus"
CNN (May 17, 2009)

"A New York middle school assistant principal who was hospitalized with the H1N1 virus died Sunday, a hospital spokesman said, though he stopped short of saying whether the flu strain contributed to the man's death...."

Don't Know the Facts? That's Okay

Kudos to Flushing Hospital's Andrew Rubin, for not commenting on assistant Principal Weiner's purported pre-existing medical conditions. New York City's mayor Bloomberg's claim that Mitchell Wiener had diabetes was disputed by Wiener's family - and may not be true.

My guess is that Flushing Hospital wants to get the facts straight, before talking to reporters. Which, I think, makes good sense. I have respect for someone who doesn't have information, realizes it, and acknowledges the fact. People who mistake assumptions or rumor for facts, not so much.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg has talked to reporters again: " 'It seems to be spreading faster, this strain,' Mayor Bloomberg told reporters Sunday night as the city's Health Department urged New Yorkers to remain vigilant." (New York Daily News)

What Mayor Bloomberg said about influenza A(H1N1) spreading more rapidly than a normal flu was backed up by a health official. The official had a few more things to say, too:

" 'It is entirely possible that in the coming days there will be people with severe illness from flu, particularly among people who have underlying health problems,' Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.

" 'If you have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, emphysema and asthma and have been exposed to someone with flu, see your doctor,' he said.

" 'The H1N1 virus appears to be spreading more rapidly at this time. Only time will tell how far, wide and long it will spread.'..." (New York Daily News)

Mentioning "underlying health conditions" was a sensible thing to do. Other Americans who have died from influenza A(H1N1) have had medical conditions that left them more vulnerable to influenza of any sort.

"Only time will tell..." is also good sense. Influenza A(H1N1) is a new disease. From what little I know about the study of novel diseases, it hasn't been around long enough for a clear, solid, understanding of it to be established.

Good Sense, Hasty Statements, and Conspiracy Theories

Influenza A(H1N1), this year's new human / avian / swine flu, is bad enough by itself. It may not be any worse than ordinary influenza - it killed one out of every 14 infected people in Mexico. But, even now it seems to be spreading faster than ordinary influenza.

Even before New York City's mayor talked about pre-existing conditions that Mr. Wiener may not have had, there was talk about a conspiracy concerning influenza A(H1N1). I got the impression that They were whipping up hysteria in order to declare martial law.

Like most conspiracy theories, it makes a good story.

Mayor Bloomberg's citing medical conditions that Mr. Wiener may not have had doesn't, I think, help keep conspiracy theories on the sidelines.

The CDC and WHO have, to date, done what I regard as a good, professional, job of making fairly regular, matter-of-fact, public reports on what they know. The Minnesota Department of Health gave a quite plausible reason for cutting off the flow of information they were releasing. I'm not entirely happy about being kept in the dark, but the official explanation isn't contrary to reason or known facts.

An official who, like Mayor Bloomberg, makes a statement which the victim's family quickly denies and which has not yet been confirmed by medical professionals, runs the risk of undermining public confidence.

If Mr Wiener turns out to have had nothing more that gout before coming down with influenza A(H1N1) and dying, we'll have an awkward situation. On the one hand, the mayor of a major American city will have said that influenza A(H1N1) wasn't what killed him: it was diabetes, or something like that. On the other hand, there will be a dead body that didn't have 'something like that' before it stopped breathing.

That lack of fit between reality and pronouncements by officials leaves room for the more imaginative and suspicious among us to weave tales of conspiracy and intrigue.

And, in my opinion, if enough people become convinced that what officials say can't be trusted - while a new, fast-spreading, lethal, virus is on the loose - we'll have serious trouble.

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

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