Monday, 13 July 2009

Swine 'flu: how bad might it get?

Some may think it ironic that I have had a lighter-than-expected afternoon, thanks to a meeting being cancelled due to some attendees having possible Swine 'flu, given that I was blogging rather cynically last week about the measures being suggested by our bishops to contact the disease.

To me, this whole exercise reeks of King Canute and the tide, except that he had the sense to realize it couldn't be stopped from coming in and was simply making a point to his more enthusiastic courtiers.

Someone (I think it was on Radio 4 this morning) described Swine 'flu as 'a story that was failing to live up to expectations'. Others, however, think I am not taking it seriously enough.

So how bad might it get? As it happens, we can get a good idea from a written answer by the then-Secretary of State for Health, given in October 2007 to the Shadow Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who asked (inter alia), "how many deaths resulting from influenza infection there were in each year since 1979". This is from her reply:

Estimated excess deaths due to influenza in England and Wales
Influenza season Number of excess deaths
1988-89 358
1989-90 26,945
1990-91 8,125
1991-92 5,967
1992-93 1,687
1993-94 14,544
1994-95 2,480
1995-96 16,241
1996-97 21,770
1997-98 0
1998-99 17,982
1999-2000 22,040
2000-01 1,067
2001-02 7,078
2002-03 6,559
2003-04 5,207
2004-05 1,795
2005-06 0

The last official epidemic, it will be noted, resulted in over 22,000 deaths. So far, Swine 'flu has managed a UK total of 17.

Now we may well be on the way to a parallel situation to 1999-2000, or even to 1989-90, when almost 27,000 died, and I think even I caught it. (Unlike most men, I rarely get 'flu.)

My point is, however, that even in a 'fallow year' like 2004-05, almost 2,000 died of 'flu and no great measures were urged on the churches or anyone else, and there were no headlines. In fact, unless Swine 'flu deaths get up around the several thousand mark, we would surely have to regard it as nothing out of the ordinary - would we not?

John Richardson
13 July 2009

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  1. John,
    I don't think you are getting the point yet. Swine Flu is quite contagious. If there is a 0.5% mortality rate and if, as currently expected, 30% of the UK population catch it this year, then that is 20 million people who caught the flu, and 100,000 deaths. Or, if you take the modelling which predicted 100,000 new infections per day; then that would mean 500 deaths per day.
    I believe this is why health care professionals are taking this extremely seriously. I'm not sure your current policy on this is a wise one. I would recommend running your ideas on this subject past a doctor in your parish.
    Peter Head (Camb.)

  2. Peter, according to the NHS, working from figures supplied by the WHO, the Swine 'flu death rate is likely to be significantly below 0.4% so the death rate, even in a 'very bad case' scenario as you outline, would be substantially less than 80,000.

    Let us say, for the sake of argument, it is 40,000. That is a lot of people, and almost double the last worse 'flu epidemic of 1989-90, but not 'apocalyptic' - not even on the scale of the 1918 global outbreak.

    My point is that (a) 'flu happens, (b) most people who can catch it probably will because transmission is so easy and one is contagious before one is symptomatic (c) we didn't have this media panic last time. Maybe I could add as a (d) death is inevitable, one way or the other.

  3. Just a couple of quotes from the Chief Medical Officer this morning of a non-Corporal Jones variety,

    "Britain can expect an "explosion" in swine flu cases this winter, but deaths among healthy people will remain rare – unless the virus mutates or mixes with another virus, the Chief Medical Officer said yesterday."

    "Professor Field said: 'I think the surprise is that it hasn't spread quicker, and though the second wave is likely to be worse, there is a question mark over whether we should keep giving Tamiflu to healthy adults for what has turned out to be a relatively mild virus.'"

  4. John, thanks for talking some sense about this. The panic measures my parish has been taking about communion, changing to intinction, now turn out to "increase the possibility of spreading the virus". But then the bishop's advice is also faulty, or at least lacking credibility, for suggesting "antibacterial gel" to combat a virus.

  5. Peter, I agree (!), though it should be noted that hand contact is thought to be a way of spreading 'flu, and therefore hand washing may reduce this possibility.

    I am not sure, but I suspect that anti-bacterial gel may be quite effective in breaking down the protein wall of a virus, and therefore killing it. The important thing, though, is anti-biotics won't help much!