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Swine Flu: revisiting Myths about Global pandemics?

Posted Aug 07 2009 7:15pm

On March 16 of this year I posted a blog entitled “ How worried should we be about global pandemic ?” Obviously, people are worried right now. Swine Flu is all over the news and Mexico appears to be headed toward major travel restrictions. CDC has reported 40 cases in the US as of 1:00 pm today with 28 of those in New York.

Over the next few days we will hear more on the facts about how the Swine Flu made it across our borders from Mexico as CDC goes into full swing on contact tracing for the US cases. Despite the scariness of the current situation, and the implications for public health, much of what was written in March still holds true. As I wrote then, I began my adventures with pandemics when I started working with the AIDS program at NIH in 1985. Since that time I have remained concerned Pandemics. Partly, I attribute this worry to the fact that the Director of the newly formed AIDS Program at the time was the former Director of Pandemic Flu preparedness for the NIAID, Dr. John LaMontagne.

However, there is also the general feeling that infectious diseases are emerging at alarming rates. During the early days of AIDS, even, it seemed that every other week I was learning about a new potential pandemic threat. There was, and is, Ebola, SARS, Bird Flu (or Avian Flu), Swine Flu and even the ancient Plague could not be ruled out as a possibility for re-visiting our global population, either in their original forms or as mutants of the original viruses.

When I wrote in March an article had just been released which questioned risk of Pandemics . An article in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in February suggested that it was strep, and not the Spanish Flu, that killed millions during the 1918 Global Flu Pandemic. It suggested that had antibiotics against strep been available, many fewer millions of people would have suffered and died.

Also in March the Washington Post had an interesting article by Philip Alcabes entitled ‘5 Myths about Pandemic Panic. ‘ Alcabes writes of the reality of the potential for another major pandemic, including questioning the usefulness of looking to the past for ideas about how to prevent future pandemics. Specifically the 5 myths he mentioned were:

1.      Infectious diseases are spreading faster than ever

2.      to learn to prevent a pandemic, look to the past

3.      We should brace ourselves for another Spanish Flu

4.      The annual flu season is nothing compared to a pandemic and

5.      There’s no such thing as being too prepared.


On this last point the author actually pointed to evidence from the last Swine Flu outbreak, he wrote

“Actually, we run the risk of doing more harm than good by overreacting to the threat of a pandemic. In 1976, swine flu , a strain of influenza similar to the one from 1918, was diagnosed in a small number of soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., one of whom died. That prompted medical experts to warn that the United States faced a crisis reminiscent of the Spanish flu. President Gerald R. Ford authorized a mass inoculation program, and 45 million Americans — more than 20 percent of the population — were vaccinated.”

What I think I enjoyed most about his article, was the discussion of the fifth of the ‘myths’ in which he postulates that it is a myth to assume that ‘There is not such thing as being too prepared.’ He believes that we are spending too many resources on useless preparations.

In my last blog, I responded by writing, “Given the need to re-evaluate every penny being spent on health care and health care prevention efforts; perhaps he is on to something.” Perhaps I will have to eat those words—or worse, cough them up.


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