With the world gripped by fears of a new pandemic, Sean McKernan asks: Wow serious a health risk is swine flu?
WITH THE INTENSITY of media coverage over swine flu this summer, one can be forgiven for having mentally tuned out. Ever since swine flu appeared in mid-March of this year, countless news reports have proclaimed the carnage and death this virus will bring. Although swine flu presents a severe challenge to world health, it may not be as severe as largely presented by the media.
Swine flu, as the name suggests, is a virus normally endemic in pigs, but is most recently believed to have passed to humans with the infection of a young boy in Mexico City early in 2009. Evidence suggests that the virus may have been present in humans for several months, and that Mexico was already in the midst of a silent epidemic, before the virus was formally recognised and diagnosed.
Historically, swine flu has caused several epidemics, with a vaccine for an earlier strain developed in 1976. As viruses mutate rapidly, this vaccine is now obsolete and we have little natural immunity to the virus in its present form, formally identified as the A(H1N1) strain. The race has now begun to create a vaccine for the current strain, which has the potential to make billions in profits for pharmaceutical companies.
“The virus attacks deep in the lungs and creates more severe respiratory symptoms than other flu viruses”
The virus itself can cause varying symptoms within carriers; ranging from effects comparable to the annual seasonal flu, to more severe sickness; muscle pain and heavy vomiting. People with underlying health conditions, respiratory conditions, diabetes and heart conditions, as well as those who are pregnant are the most likely to suffer severe complications or to die as a result of infection.
In its severest form, the virus attacks deep in the lungs and creates more severe respiratory symptoms than other flu viruses, which attack only the upper respiratory system. This can cause more serious breathing difficulty than other influenza viruses and increasing the risk respiratory failure.
Swine flu carries a higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu, but the difference is greatly exaggerated by most tabloid newspapers. With the winter approaching in the northern hemisphere, however, the number of cases may take a long time to plateau.
So why has swine flu become such a serious health topic? One reason may be its prodigious rate of spread. With air travel and international travel now commonplace, the rate of viral spread is increasing. SARS and Bird Flu are perfect examples of recent viral outbreaks where air travel was a major factor in the rapid spread of disease.
Alarming virus epidemics have occurred in the past. In 1918, Spanish flu was spread to sub-Saharan Africa by two soldiers returning home from World War I, and caused the deaths of approximately two million Africans. The Black Death of the 1340s is another example of a lethal and easily transmitted infection, which claimed at least 75 million lives.
Now with air travel widespread, disease can travel internationally to numerous countries, creating silent epidemics where the virus has spread widely before it can be controlled. Border control has also been stepped up by several countries such as China in a bid to curb the spread.
Swine flu is an excellent example of how modern life can make it easier for diseases to spread at pace. The study of its epidemiology may provide vital data to scientists that could be used to prevent other diseases from spreading in the future, and thus ensuring that minimal lives are lost.
In the meantime, frequently washing your hands and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing is the most effective way of preventing the spread of disease, as eighty per cent of all bacteria are transferred via hand contact.