The Growing Threat From A New Flu Virus

If you’ve been preoccupied with stress tests, automobile company bankruptcies and government officials instructing bank CEO’s to ignore their fiduciary duties you can be excused for missing a threat against which all of our current travails will pale. Specifically, the emergence and apparent widespread infection of citizens of that country by a new form of swine flu.

From Yahoo here is the basics of the story:

A deadly new swine flu strain that has killed at least 20 people and sickened more than 1,000 across Mexico has “pandemic potential,” the World Health Organization chief said Saturday, and it may be too late to contain the outbreak.

With 24 new suspected cases of the swine flu reported Saturday in Mexico City alone, schools were ordered closed and all public events suspended until further notice — including more than 500 concerts and other gatherings in the metropolis of 20 million.

A hot line fielded 2,366 calls in its first hours from frightened city residents who suspected they might have the disease. Soldiers and health workers handed out masks at subway stops, and hospitals dealt with crowds of people seeking help.

The World Health Organization‘s director-general, Margaret Chan, said the outbreak of the never-before-seen virus is a very serious situation and has “pandemic potential.” But she said it is still too early to tell if it would become a pandemic.

“The situation is evolving quickly,” Chan said in a telephone news conference in Geneva. “A new disease is by definition poorly understood.”

This virus is a mix of human, pig and bird strains that prompted WHO to meet Saturday to consider declaring an international public health emergency — a step that could lead to travel advisories, trade restrictions and border closures.

But experts at the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say the nature of this outbreak may make containment impossible. Already, more than 1,000 people have been infected in as many as 14 of Mexico’s 32 states, according to daily newspaper El Universal. Tests show 20 people have died of the swine flu, and 48 other deaths were probably due to the same strain.

There have been 8 confirmed cases of the virus in Texas and California. Health officials are somewhat puzzled by the fact that no deaths have been documented in the U.S. from the disease even though it appears to be the same strain.

Until now there have been no cases of either swine or bird flu being transmitted from human to human. Humans have contracted both types of flu but always through contact with the animals. The problem that arises with a completely new strain of virus is that the general population has no developed immunity.

Individuals over time have built up an immunity to the more common types of flu that we are used to dealing with. Though those strains may mutate, that natural immunity in the population acts to dampen the spread of the disease. In the case of this strain no natural immunity would seem to exist which means more people get sick and naturally act as carriers thereby infecting even more people.

The last incidence of a pandemic such as this occurring was with the Spanish Flu in 1918. From Wikipedia here is a description of what ensued:

The global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known, but is estimated at 2.5 to 5% of the human population, with 20% or more of the world population suffering from the disease to some extent. Influenza may have killed as many as 25 million in its first 25 weeks (in contrast, AIDS killed 25 million in its first 25 years)[citation needed]. Older estimates say it killed 40–50 million people[3] while current estimates say 50 million to 100 million people worldwide were killed.[13] This pandemic has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history” and may have killed more people than the Black Death.[14]

An estimated 7 million died in India, about 2.78% of India’s population at the time. In the Indian Army, almost 22% of troops who caught the disease died of it[citation needed]. In the U.S., about 28% of the population suffered, and 500,000 to 675,000 died.[15] In Britain as many as 250,000 died; in France more than 400,000. In Canada approximately 50,000 died. Entire villages perished in Alaska and southern Africa. Ras Tafari (the future Haile Selassie) was one of the first Ethiopians who contracted influenza but survived,[16] although many of his subjects did not; estimates for the fatalities in the capital city, Addis Ababa, range from 5,000 to 10,000, with some experts opining that the number was even higher,[17] while inBritish Somaliland one official there estimated that 7% of the native population died from influenza.[18] InAustralia an estimated 12,000 people died and in the Fiji Islands, 14% of the population died during only two weeks, and in Western Samoa 22%.

I would imagine that given the advance in medical technology as well as the availability of antibiotics (they weren’t invented in 1918) that the mortality rate of such a pandemic would be much lower. At the same time, the volume and speed of international travel today versus 1918 would suggest that any virus would spread much more quickly.

If this situation were to escalate, it could pose a major threat to the international economy which we obviously don’t need right now. The World Health Organization has the ability to issue travel advisories if it determines the threat has reached a certain level. It isn’t inconceivable that you could see travel and trade for that matter severely reduced and perhaps banned if countries over react. Then there is the problem of a general panic among the public. A true pandemic might well result in a complete collapse of anything outside of subsistence economic activity as individuals shun social contact.

The situation is developing rapidly and at the current point in time is deteriorating. A number of health agencies are in full alert mode. It is likely that more information is going to come out throughout the weekend. If you want to follow it, I found these three links (here, here and here) via Marginal Revolution which seem to be somewhat real time sources of information.

Hopefully, this passes as have so many of these scares in the past few years. Then again, our luck hasn’t been so good in other matters over the past year or so.

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