Why Swine Flu is a bunch of hogwash.

May 18, 2009 By Alan J. Salzberg
I first thought of writing about this a couple of weeks ago, when the nationwide hysteria concerning swine flu was just beginning, but then, as quickly as it came, it went. Now, with the first death from swine flu in NY, the front pages of the major newspapers have returned to the topic. The New York Times article and headline, was, as always, something close to languid. However, the NY post's article and photos, are, also as usual, a bit hysterical. My son's school, apparent readers of the post, have covered all the water fountains with plastic bags, perhaps unaware that the CDC clearly states there seems to be little or no chance of infection through drinking water.

What's more is that, so far, this flu has been a very minor flu, with about 5,000 documented cases and 6 deaths. The blog of record relays that the "regular" flu has already killed something like 13,000 people in the US this year (it's not clear whether this is derived from the CDC's annual estimate of 36,000). This amounts to about 100 people a day.

While one CDC scientist estimates the number of people with the swine flu are 50,000 or so, this estimate assumes that under-reporting of swine flu is the same as under-reporting of flu in general. Given the focus on swine flu, I expect that under-reporting of it is far lower than of general flu, and thus, the true number with the swine flu is far fewer than 50,000. The CDC's currently weekly flu report shows about one-third of the 1,286 new cases as swine flu (novel H1N1). The same report has a great graph, showing an irregular spike in flu diagnosis, just at the time when reported flu usually falls.

There are three pieces of good news, despite the scary spiked graph. First, with spring, flu cases quickly fall, because flu spreads less when people are further away from each other (i.e., outside instead of inside). Second, cases are already falling (though it's only two weeks of data). Third, all types of flu diagnosis increased in the last two weeks versus the several weeks leading up to May), implying that one of the reasons (perhaps the only reason) for the spike is that we are testing much more than usual, due to the swine flu outbreak.

Thus, Swine flu has so far killed a documented 6 people in the U.S. out of more than 5,000 confirmed cases.

In conclusion, though our own hysteria may drive documented cases up some, and lead to my children having to bring a water bottle to school, the swine flu does not appear to be particularly dangerous or deadly.