There is nothing like a few cases of serious flu to stop the world in its tracks and get everyone showing just how foolish they can really be, given a chance.
The Mexican Flu (I call it this out of respect to my former employer. Art Price, who is also part of a major hog farming family) is a scare which is helping to sell newspapers, support ailing TV news and fills an obvious void in our need for a sense of crisis to spur us into action. A very small number of people are suffering flu symptoms and an even smaller number have died. In fact, there have been 93 confirmed cases in the US, 19 in Canada, 13 in New Zealand, five in Britain, four in Germany, 10 in Spain, two in Israel, and one in Austria. In Mexico, where the outbreak is serious, there are currently 2,500 cases of suspected Mexican Flu (only 36 are actually confirmed) and 199 deaths. Total deaths globally stands (according to The Guardian and the BBC) at 207.
In the 2008-9 flu season (which we are still in) there have been 25,952 reported cases of flu in the US. Of these 66.5% were Type A (which includes the H1 strain) and the balance were Type B. In the US so far this year, excluding Mexican Flu, fifty five children have died. In the UK in 2008-9 prior to the Mexican Flu scare, there have been 1,925 reported influenza cases (85% Type A) and some 1,266 deaths due to respiratory illness have occurred, some of which may be associated with flu. In Canada in the 2007-8 season, Canada had 12,256 cases of flu (57% Type A). In 2008-9 so far the number of cases appears similar to previous years - 5,283 Type A cases and 8,767 Type B cases for a total of 14,050 cases.
In 2007 the H5N1 bird flu killed 59 people worldwide, making it a small problem compared to other death causes. However, this was the flu that the WHO claimed was the sign of a coming pandemic that would kill up to 150 million people. A case of chicken little.
So should we be in pandemic mode. No. The situation, according to the UK Medical Officer of Health, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, is concerning but not yet alarming. He pointed out that death from flu is not usual, but not uncommon and that most people have dealt with flu and recovered, as have the first two Scottish cases – the honeymooners who went to Mexico to return to an isolation ward in a Scottish hospital are now home and well.
Cancelling vacations, ruining the carefully laid plans of school children, walking about Heathrow in face masks en route to Canada (which I saw on Tuesday) are all out of proportion. Even if the WHO moves to a full pandemic flu statement later today, it simply signifies the need they have for attention. The less we panic and the more we stay in good health, wash our hands and don’t sneeze all over people the better.