Every year, the WHO estimates that seasonal influenza typically infects anywhere from three to five million people severely with a death count of some 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide.
The panic around pandemics and the money behind them
By Victoria Chau, Staff Writer
By July of 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of swine flu H1N1 a pandemic. This was amidst a worldwide panic as the WHO continuously provided updates as to the seriousness of this new flu strain. Swine flu was deemed a pandemic after 332 deaths and the confirmation of less than 80,000 cases of swine flu around the globe.
Where, oh where, did the first piggy come from?
Back in 2005, during November, a Wisconsin teenager helped his brother-in-law butcher 31 pigs for a nearby slaughterhouse. That same teenage boy spent his Thanksgiving with his family who had purchased a chicken and decided to keep the animal in the house because of the cold weather. As December rolled around, he suffered from a flu that lasted three days, went to see a doctor, recovered, and went home. A very typical story, with nothing unusual, except for the fact that the influenza virus that the boy suffered from was very different from the seasonal flu. It was a combination of wild-bird flu, a human strain of flu, and a strand from pigs.
That minor episode was part of the origin of the swine flu that began to garner international attention in April of 2009, when Mexico and the United States reported an “influenza-like illness” in some of their citizens. Many of these cases of influenza-like illnesses were confirmed through laboratory results to be identical in both Mexico and the United States. This obviously caused concern as it was becoming a major outbreak in Mexico, with a suspected death toll of around 65, the majority of which were healthy young adults.
Fear of the Swine
Much of the scare surrounding the swine flu was due to the fact that it was a new flu strain we hadn’t yet experienced which was attacking healthy age groups instead of only the elderly and the young. The WHO became especially concerned as its laboratories noted many genetic differences between this H1N1 strain and the seasonal influenza which was coupled with the ease that the swine flu spread geographically.
Another factor that increased both the WHO’s concern and the mass panic around the world was its difference in disease pattern from the seasonal flu. This H1N1 strain produced a severe form of pneumonia that, unlike the seasonal flu strain, seemed to be especially fatal. Within four months (April 2009 to July 2009), the WHO confirmed that swine flu had spread to over 120 countries. In this time the WHO had already declared a pandemic and was scrambling with governments to get vaccines available before the flu season of October-November began in the western hemisphere.
Among the panic that swine flu was spreading rapidly throughout the world was the fear that the H1N1 strain could also mutate, similar to the fears of avian flu (H5N1) evolving. A mutation would cause the H1N1 strain to become more dangerous by increasing the fatality rate among those infected.
The WHO was so convinced of a pandemic from the swine flu’s easy transferability from person to person and the potential for thousands of deaths, that the definition of a pandemic was actually changed so that swine flu would fit the parameters. Initially the WHO’s pandemic classification was for a disease that had “several, simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illnesses.”
The swine flu of 2009 met the first part of the parameters but not the latter. The WHO altered its definition in the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response (A WHO Guidance Document) of an influenza pandemic to “occur when an animal influenza virus to which most humans have no immunity acquires the ability to cause sustained chains of human-to-human transmission leading to community-wide outbreaks,” so that swine flu qualified as a pandemic. It goes to show that the WHO was so concerned or determined that H1N1 was a pandemic, that it worked with the results of the H1N1 cases to classify swine flu as one.