Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centers for Disease Control has declared that the threat of a swine flu epidemic has passed. Despite widespread fears that the H1N1 strain of influenza virus would exact an epic toll, the flu came and went without ever achieving epidemic status.

Only 161 new infections were reported to CDC-monitored labs last week, compared to 11,470 at the epidemic’s mid-October peak. Only one state (Alabama) still reports “widespread activity.” Deaths and hospitalizations were 14 and 374, respectively, compared to 189 and 4,970 a week at the peak. To put that in perspective, the CDC estimates that an average of 257 Americans normally die of seasonal flu every day during the season, or about 36,000 a year.

The most remarkable aspect of the story, according to writer Michael Fumento, is that the spread of the swine fly this winter may have actually reduced overall deaths from influenza.

That’s because H1N1 is both more contagious than regular seasonal flu and less lethal, and people who contract it are effectively immunized against subsequently contracting seasonal flu. So, far from the public health menace portrayed in the mass media, swine flu turned out to be a net public health benefit.

Well, that may be true from the perspective of overall fatalities, but from the point of view of those who came down with the disease, it still really sucked. The idea that it failed to reach official epidemic status is cold comfort for those who suffered through its effects. As my Facebook friend Rob Gallagher wrote, in response to my tweet about this news, “Nearly everyone I know got it. Surprised that isn’t am epedemic.”

The other reason that we shouldn’t be dancing in the streets is that the failure of the threat to materialize means that in all likelihood future warnings will fall on deaf ears — just as the disastrous swine-flu scare of the ’70s, in which the vaccine killed more people than the virus itself, made the whole concept of swine flu a punchline for a generation. The next time a potential epidemic looms, the public will likely be much harder to rouse to action. And that could turn out to be a real tragedy.