On Swine Flu

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.

I’m an epidemiologist, a word derived from “epidemic”, which means that I’m supposed to know something about diseases. This past week, several people have approached me for “expert” commentary on the emerging swine flu pandemic. I’d like to declare for the record that while I’ve written a few articles about pandemic influenza, I’m by no means an infectious disease specialist. However, I thought I’d say a few defensible things about swine flu nonetheless.

Today we have reports of the first death in the USA, while Canada’s tally holds at 13 cases, but no fatalities. These numbers are to be expected. They are the result of travelers returning from the endemic zone of Mexico. As far as I can tell from news reports, there have been no cases in Canada of someone contracting the disease from someone who has just returned from Mexico. This means that the system is working as it should: those returning from Mexico with the disease are being quarantined and treated… for the most part.

The fatality rate thus far is about 5-7% (which is actually higher than the 2.5% rate of the world-changing pandemic of 1918). Also, the cases in Canada have all been of the mild variety, which means there is a reasonable expectation of full recovery for each case. This is not the Bubonic Plague. In other words, if current controls are kept in place, there is every expectation that our very thorough and professional public health infrastructure will keep civilization quite safe from this disease.

As for what we can do to protect ourselves, do remember that I am not a medical doctor, but a research scientist, so my advice carries no medical authority. However, my opinion is that we should just do what our mothers told us: wash our hands, sneeze into our elbow pits, don’t touch our faces or mucous membranes before washing first, avoid extremely crowded areas (like sporting events, theatres, etc) and keep ourselves in good health to maintain robust immune systems. We can do the latter by practicing good daily health: eat fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables; enjoy moderate exercise regularly; get lots of sleep; drink lots of fluids; avoid stress; practice basic hygiene; and avoid unhealthy products like alcohol, tobacco and preservatives.

This is a peculiar time for an entrepreneur whose business is public health. On the one hand, there is an opportunity to capitalize on public fears and anxieties by positioning oneself as either a calming or inciting authority. Or one can view the opportunity in different terms, as a responsibility to apply one’s unique skills for the betterment of the public good.

I’m not a fan of profiting from fear, yet I will likely make a few bucks here and there by writing articles about pandemic flu. The danger is falling prey to the seduction of the moment, of overstating the risk posed by the disease because, frankly, we are all subconsciously motivated to create an environment wherein our skills have heightened value.

For this reason, I am making a concerted effort to avoid saying too much about swine flu. Or at least that was the plan…. and yet here I am still talking about it!

I guess I’d better stop 🙂