Monday, 4 May 2009

Pandemic or Pandemonium?

Yes, I'm as concerned as anybody about the risk of catching swine flu; probably more than most, in that I'm one of those who actually believes that it's only a matter of time.

We keep animals in industrial plants where disease is rife, antibiotics overused, and natural immunity quashed. We keep people in similar ways, and cram them into appallingly ventilated aircraft to ensure that whatever diseases anyone has at the start of the flight are shared out before the end of the flight.

So it really is just a matter of time; possibly this outbreak (unlikely), but maybe the next, or the one after that. It'll happen, and no amount of quick identification, clever tracking the virus across continents, or blaming the Mexicans, will stop it.

But my quarrel is not with swine flu, or even the media, who - as ever - panicked (that didn't worry me, or anyone I've spoke to - it's taken as a given that the media will overreact. Who cares?). My quarrel is with the terminology.

This is an outbreak of a particular strain of flu. No capital letter, no red codes or flashing lights, not even a number. It's an outbreak.

Now, bearing in mind that flu kills some 26,000 people each year in the USA alone, it seems to me that 226 cases, even spread over 30 states - with no deaths - can hardly be called an epidemic. And let's take it wider; yes there have been deaths from swine flu this time around, but, so far, all have been in Mexico, or people who caught the flu in Mexico and then travelled. None of the 'second hand' contacts have died. Indeed, it appears that the form of flu is milder than many 'normal' flu viruses.  This is nothing against Mexico; it happened to start there, and no-one was expecting it, so early cases were not recognised until very ill. Now we know.

Worldwide, as I write what could be my last words (you'll be lucky), there have been fewer than 1000 cases, and about 100 deaths. And yet "The Authorities" everywhere call it an epidemic, and this epidemic scores five out of six on the way to a Pandemic.

So, 100 deaths = Score One through Score Five, leaving Score Six to cover anytghing from 101 deaths to 6 billion deaths. As straight line scales go, I don't think so. Logarithmic scale? doesn't cut it. Exponential? not even close.

If the mathematics of fear brings us this close to a pandemic after 1000 cases, 100 deaths in 25 countries and secondary infection of ten people in five countries, then we're going to need a new lexicon for 'levels of pandemic'.

So, here's the Heenan Scale of Flu Pandemics:

#1 - 1000 cases, 100 deaths, 10 countries:
Code Drebin

With Drebin from Police Squad, there's really no danger - unless there's some almighty comibination of ineptitude, crass stupidity and  and incompetence. Laugh while you can.

#2 - 10,000 cases, 1000 deaths, 100 countries:
Code Columbo

Things are serious, but there's a good chance of getting it under control ... but there's always 'just one more thing' that could lead to disaster. Still some humour, But This Just Might Be Serious.

#3 - 100,000 cases, 10000 deaths, almost Worldwide
Code Kojak

It's awful out there, and not a lot that anybody can do except wait. This is where Kojak comes in; he's pretty useless as a detective, solving his cases by dumb luck ('word on the street' in 98.6% of episodes), but he always has a reassuring word. Just what we'll need.

#4 - 1,000,000 cases, 100,000 deaths, Worldwide
Code Bourne

It's dire; there's nothing anyone can do. News editors have run out of hyperbole and invective, there's nothing left to do but shoot up a few government departments. Won't help, but I guess people might feel better.

#5 - 10,000,000 cases 1,000,000 deaths
Code Dirty Harry

Up yours, pal - it's every man for himself.

OK, as scales go, this is no Beaufort or Richter - but it's a start, and we're going to need one. Maybe soon. Meanwhile, you can do the single thing that may reduce the spread of this disease -no, not wear a silly and useless facemask - simply wash your hands after visiting the toilet. Every time. 

Oh, and think twice before flying, until someone notices that the ventilation sucks. And then blows the same air round and round and round, with a very high risk (almost 100%) of spreading airborne infection. That's been known, understood and ignored for fifty years.

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