Swine Flu: How scared should we be?

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by bledsoe on May 4, 2009

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.


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