Rich Galen

There is nothing funny about a flu epidemic. And there is much to worry over when an epidemic becomes a pandemic.

The world is on edge this morning over the strain of swine flu which is now popping up in diverse areas of the world and which may have started in Mexico.

A few years ago everyone was talking about Bird Flu; and six years ago - this very week - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had health officials' knickers in a twist.

One of the reasons flu is so closely watched is because of the huge number of humans who come down with it every year. A small change in mortality rates (the percentage of people who die from a disease) can have a huge impact because the numbers are so large.

In an average year, according for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population comes down with the flu. For the purposes of this calculation let's say it is halfway: 12.5%.

Twelve and a half percent of the U.S. population is about 37.5 million.

The CDC also reports that 200,000 people are admitted to hospitals in the U.S. for flu or flu-like symptoms every year.

Other researchers have calculated that on average, about 40,000 people die in the United States each year from the flu or complications of the flu. As a comparison, According to the CDC about 650,00 die from heart disease and about 550,000 die from cancer. Every year.

If 40,000 people die out of the 37.5 million who come down with the flu that is a mortality rate of a little over one tenth of one percent.

According to a Stanford University summary of the great flu pandemic of 1918, the mortality rate in that outbreak was about 2.5 percent - almost 25 times the mortality of a normal flu year.

So, to complete the discussion, if this Swine Flu has a higher than normal mortality rate, maybe even as high as 2.5%, and a normal number of Americans - 37.5 million - are infected with it then over 950,000 Americans would die of that flu strain.

If contagion rates are higher than average and this strain of flu is as virulent as the 1918 strain then well over a million Americans might die of it.

In Mexico, as of yesterday, 1,300 people had contracted the disease and 80 had died - a mortality rate of over 6 percent.

Hence, the concern.

As of yesterday at noon, the CDC had confirmed 20 cases in the U.S. but no fatalities.

You can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently and staying away from people who are ill. Wearing a surgical mask will make you look foolish but will probably not help because (a) they are hard to fit properly and (b) if they are fitted properly they are hard to breath through.

You cannot get swine flu from eating pork, so that bacon, egg & cheese you've got on your tray is probably safe from flu, but not from cholesterol.

Finally. And this is crucial: If you were planning a class trip to a pig farm in Mexico; cancel it.


Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at Mullings.com.