As it was with outbreaks of SARS and the bird flu in recent years, the media is now awash with stories about the swine flu.
The current swine flu strain is closely related to HIVI strain of the influenza virus that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people in the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic.
Swine flu does present a possible danger, but people need to keep it in perspective.
So far, there have only been 45 confirmed cases of swine flu during the current outbreak, although there are more than 1,800 possible cases. To date, 103 people have possibly died from the virus, all of them in Mexico.
In the United States, there have been 40 confirmed cases and more than 100 other possible cases.
Considering the world’s population is 6.9 billion and the US population is 307 million, the incidences of occurrence so far are statistically negligible.
The particular strain of swine flu is unique, but the swine flu itself is nothing new, just as other strains of influenza are not new. Various strains of the flu kill an estimated 500,000 people annually, including about 36,000 in the United States
Because the HIVI strain that caused the Spanish flu spread easily from person to person, it was thought to have affected half of the world’s population.
Scientists believe another pandemic of an influenza strain that spreads easily could occur, and, in fact, that the world is due for one.
But even if the current strain of swine flu were to affect a large part of the world’s population – and the jury is still out on how easily this strain passes from human to human – there are many differences in the world now than at the time of the Spanish flu 90 years ago.
One of the reasons many people die from the flu is secondary infections like pneumonia. Today, people – especially in developed countries – who come down with a serious bout of the flu are much more likely to seek medical attention, where they often receive antibiotics to reduce the mortality of secondary infections.
Hygiene habits have also improved since 1919, and there are higher standards of sanitation for restaurants, hospitals, schools and public transport.
In addition, people are more aware of how to minimise chances of catching a virus. People know to wash their hands before eating; to avoid touching their mouth, nose or eyes with their hands; to cover their mouths with a tissue when they cough or sneeze; to avoid contact with sick people; and to stay home when they themselves fall ill with the flu.
Yes, the swine flu is an issue and it could get worse before it gets better, but there is no need to panic, even if the issue is dominating headlines and newscasts right now.