On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) elevated the swine flu alert from phase 5 to phase 6. This means that the current swine flu epidemic is freely spreading around the world.
The swine flu differs from the normal seasonal flu viruses in that it is particularly harsh on on younger, fairly healthy people. 57% of the of the US cases have been among people in the 5 to 24 age group. Most normal flu fatalities disproportionately kill elderly people and people with compromised immune systems. There is some evidence that people in older age brackets may have some natural immunity, presumably from exposure to previous flu viruses.
Swine Flu Symptoms to Watch For
The symptoms of the swine flu are a fever above 104 degrees F, and a cough or other respiratory symptoms. Everyone admitted to hospitals with these symptoms is presumed to have the swine flue, but tests are showing that many people actually have normal seasonal flu viruses.
The death toll thus far with this combination of two swine flu viruses, one bird flu virus and one human virus, has been relatively mild. The 2009 swine flu has emerged in 74 countries and over 30,000 cases have been reported, although it is very likely that millions of people have been infected. Thus far, 144 people have died. Normal seasonal flu viruses reportedly kill 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide every year.
Other pandemics of the last century killed large numbers of people. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people. The 1957 Asian flu pandemic killed 2 million people. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed one million. Even the Bird flu scare of 2003 has thus far killed 262 people, who mostly lived in Asian countries.
If the deaths thus far have been low, why should we be concerned?
The concern is serious and justified because this Swine flu strain has been mimicking the patterns observed during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The pandemic disproportionately affected younger, healthier people. It was also relatively mild during the year it emerged, which was 1918. It didn’t kill large numbers of people until the following year, in 1919.
There is also the issue of the continuing concern about the Asian bird flu, which continues to infect and kill small numbers people in Asian countries. This strain has not died out like many flu viruses. In fact, there was a resurgence of cases in 2008.
At this point, two antiviral medications called Tamiflu and Relenza, have provided moderately effective treatment. Many countries, including the USA, have accumulated stockpiles of these drugs since the 2003 Bird flu scare. However, in recent years many of the normal seasonal flu viruses have built up a resistance to Tamiflu. Because the Mexican swine flu is a mutating virus, it to could develop a resistance to treatment. If this happens and the virus becomes much deadlier during its second year, the options for treatment and survival may be limited.