Are You Up to Date on the Swine Flu?

The confirmation of a new swine-human influenza strain is only a little over 2 weeks old, and yet with worldwide access to information and open communication, we know more about this virus then probably any pandemic to date. Current statistics indicate 4,694 cases of H1N1 (or the "swine flu") have been documented in 30 countries. Three countries have reported deaths: Mexico (48), the United States (3), and Canada (1).

The swine flu, as it was initially called--and later, H1N1 to help protect the interests of swine farmers--was feared to be the pandemic that could wipe out millions around the globe. It was compared to the Spanish Flue of 1918 that infected 1/3 of the world's population and killed 50 million people worldwide--and that was without modern transportation.

Extraordinary measures were put in place to protect citizens around the world. Schools were closed for up to 10 days with a single case of the flu reported--and all schools in Mexico City were closed whether cases were reported or not. Governments shut their borders to travelers from Mexico and anyone who appeared sick. Businesses and other public activities were curtailed or closed. Travel was discouraged to any areas where the flu was spreading.

We may still be in the beginning stages of this particular flu strain--or it could be that with modern communication, technology, and access to information, we have turned the tide against what could have been a devastating flu epidemic. Or maybe we just overreacted.

Considering that approximately 36,000 people die from flu-related causes each year in the United States alone, it's hard to really understand the uproar over this particular influenza strain. With our instant connection to news around the world--and sharing of that information, how critically are we evaluating this deluge?

Consider the following:

  • A Wikipedia page that was created to specifically document the 2009 swine flu outbreak has been updated 3,412 times since April 25, 2009
  • At its height last week, swine flu was the topic of 2% of all twitter communications--at times, references to swine flu topped out at a rate of more than 10,000 tweets per hour (Nielsen blog) and even the CDC has its own twitter accounts (@CDCemergency and @CDC_eHealth)
  • More than 500 groups have been set up on Facebook to discuss the swine flu--one with over 10,000 members

With all this information, you would think we would be wiser and more informed, but hype and hysteria are much more interesting, it seems. Even though the new virus is different from what normally affects pigs (with the addition of human and avian genes--and genes from viruses that typically affect European and Asian pigs) and not a single flu case has been identified that occurred from handling processed pork:

  • Officials in Egypt ordered the slaughter of its country's 300,000 pigs
  • 20 countries have banned or restricted pork imports
  • Pork consumption is down worldwide

How can we expect our children to think critically and accurately analyze the huge amount of information available to them on complex issues if adults--and even more importantly, our leaders--will not do so?

In March 2012, Judi Yost joined our extended network of alumni.