Teacher and coach

Swine Flu: How scared should we be?

The current national and international concern over the swine flu (aka influenza A, H1N1) outbreaks has created a fair amount of concern among many.  With so many media outlets anxiously reporting on the latest suspected or confirmed cases, or on different people’s or institutions’ reactions to the disease, a little perspective could be helpful.

A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition reported on the number of young children who are injured or killed each year due to falling furniture, specifically falling TVs.  Researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, analyzed data from the federal Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

…They looked at all emergency room patients under 17 years old who suffered furniture or TV tip-over related injuries from 1990 to 2007.

They estimate a total of 264,200 children and adolescents were treated for such injuries during the 18-year study period. This averages to 14,700 injuries among children every year. Three-hundred died as a result of their injuries during this period.

Thus we have approximately 14,700 US children injured each year, and approximately 17 US children who die each year, as a result of a TV or other piece of heavy furniture falling on them.  As of today (May 4, 2009), there are 253 confirmed cases of swine flu in the US, another 98 suspected cases, and one death.  (Note that the swine flu numbers are counting people of all ages, not just those under 17.)

This is not an attempt to say that swine flu, or any other type of influenza, may not be a dangerous illness, especially for young children. Approximately 36,000 deaths (children and adults) are associated with influenza each year in the US, roughly the same number of Americans who are killed in automobile accidents each year.  There have also been three “notable” worldwide flu pandemics since 1900, and the World Health Organization “warns that there is a substantial risk of an influenza pandemic within the next few years.”

But it is also good to keep in mind that the biggest threats to our physical safety are usually not something as dramatic as the latest worldwide infectious disease outbreak, but something as mundane as heart disease, an automobile accident, or falling furniture. We live in a world that can be dangerous, but it’s good to keep those dangers in perspective.

Update: Wired magazine had a neat article in their July 2009 issue in which they compared the H1N1 virus (fatality rate 0.7 percent) with the 1918 flu pandemic (fatality rate 5 percent) and the fictional virus from Stephen King’s novel The Stand (fatality rate >99 percent).  Just the graph (below) is priceless, but you should also click over to read the short article.  Very nicely done.

H1N1chart.640x363

6 Responses to “Swine Flu: How scared should we be?”

  1. browse says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m going to disagree with your conclusion.

    Yes, if you look at the number of people currently plagued (heh) by Swine Flu, it is a trivial worry compared to the number of children crushed by falling vending machines, shark attacks and running with scissors.

    The gotcha is, we don’t expect the rate of incidence of those latter three examples to change much, year after year. Whereas with an infectious disease, we do worry about a sharp (exponential) growth rate. For each person infected, they have an opportunity to infect N people, each of who can infect another N people, so on and so on.

    So, the current number of infections, not at all scary. Where that curve might lead… potentially much more scary.

  2. bledsoe says:

    A fair point. And the possibility of another worldwide flu pandemic in the next few years is very real, and could potentially kill a lot of people, and I’m glad the WHO and other health orgs have been preparing for that possibility for a while. And I’m glad they’re monitoring this particular influenza outbreak as well.

    I just find it interesting (and troubling) that people don’t generally get too concerned about boring, everyday threats to our health or lives, like car wrecks or heart disease. Or if we do, we don’t do the simple things that we could do to protect ourselves, like not driving so fast or eating a healthy diet and exercising. Those things are just so boring. But the swine flu, man, we love seeing the reports about that and talking about whether we think we might have it or whether we should get one of those masks. It’s like a national social event that we can all follow and talk about on Facebook.

  3. browse says:

    Re: I just find it interesting (and troubling) …

    Agreed, squared and cubed. That sort of behavior is pretty deeply wired in our monkey minds. Shiny new data catches our attention (Look, a new new flu strain!) while long-term known issues (Heart disease, yawn) gets lost in the background noise, despite the relative dangers posed by the latter versus the former.

  4. My family has been following this closely because we are trying to plan a family trip and the plan had been for Cancun. One limb of the family tree has become VERY against going to Mexico since the outbreak of the swine flu. Our limb was worried when there were travel advisories stating a recommendation not to visit Mexico. That recommendation is no longer there, and I recently found out that WHO held a conference in Cancun.
    I’m ready to make reservations and get with the plan. 🙂

    Oh, and I yell at the TV every time they discuss the (outbreak) numbers. The least the media could do is to also state the number of regular flu victims to give some perspective.
    .-= Jennifer Davis´s last blog ..I wanted to scream =-.

  5. bledsoe says:

    I’ve come to think that perspective is not something to expect in abundance from the mainstream media. When your primary concern is getting as many viewers/readers/listeners as possible, you’re gonna tend to go for things that are dramatic and/or fear-inducing, and the possibility of a world-wide infectious disease outbreak has got that in spades. Discussions of the likelihood of such an outbreak, however, are much less dramatic.

    Good luck with the trip planning! Hope everything works out well.

  6. oyun indir says:

    Oh, and I yell at the TV every time they discuss the (outbreak) numbers.

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