May 28, 2009
As the flu panic recedes, we are left to contemplate this embarrassing fact: we've done it again. That is, responded to a modest risk with a dangerous stampede. The tendency seems to be built into our genes, or into the self-interest of big headlines and high ratings and of government and international health officials, says Michael Fumento, a health writer with a specialty in epidemiology.
To put the risks in perspective:
- Seasonal flu infects 15 million to 60 million Americans a year, hospitalizing 200,000 and killing 36,000.
- The new swine flu has so far killed only 15 in the United States, including one Mexican national who came here for treatment.
- Even in Mexico, where poor health care translates into higher mortality, the disease is not as widespread as we were led to believe; originally, the death count was reported at 159, but in actuality it is only 25.
There is nothing inherent in swine flu that makes it either more contagious or more dangerous, says Fumento. There's evidence that the new strain is more difficult to transmit than seasonal flu, and less lethal. Swine flu cases so far have generally been quite mild, but there is no vaccine.
However, the real threat is what hysteria will do to a sick global economy:
- The SARS panic cost the economies of East and Southeast Asia 0.6 percentage points of 2003 gross domestic product (GDP).
- Last year a World Bank report estimated that just the impact of avoiding infection during a flu pandemic, not the illness itself, would shave 1.9 percent off world GDP.
- Some poorer parts of the world -- including that containing Mexico -- would lose 2.9 percent of GDP.
Given the well-established connection of wealth to health, that economic side effect could be more deadly than the virus, says Fumento.
Source: Michael Fumento, "Mayday!...Never Mind," Forbes, May 25, 2009.
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