I read this in the LA Times today and the first thing I thought was “how do they know?”.
“This virus doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity to kill like the 1918 virus,” which claimed an estimated 50 million victims worldwide, said Richard Webby, a leading influenza virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic had a mortality rate of 2.5%, profound virulence, and demonstrated a morbidity pattern that affected 20-40 year olds most severely. From early reports the swine flu cases have a 10% mortality rate and a morbidity pattern that favors 20-40 year olds, what is not yet known is the virulence. In other words, what we are seeing as of right now is that the swine flu is statistically far more deadly than the Spanish Flu and affects the same age demographic, what we don’t know is how the statistics skew downward as more cases are reported and more importantly, how fast the virus can spread and infect.
All of this brings me to the observation about how we intuitively deal with risk at a personal level. I was talking about this with my wife last night and what we focused on was that the government seems really behind the curve on this with almost 10 days elapsing from the initial reports from Mexico and Canada before the U.S. government kicked into action and then wildly conflicting reports about what Homeland Security is and is not doing, and now even the Vice President says he would give his own family precautionary advice far more severe than what the government is telling the rest of us to do. While we seem to have a good system in place for dealing with a pandemic, the lurching actions toward aggressive steps to contain this are troubling along with the fact that CDC and DHS seem to have been caught off guard by it.
When it comes to your family and yourself the statistics tend to be meaningless. I think we can all intellectualize the notion that the risks are miniscule but we also understand that if the statistic is you or your family it’s not 1 in a million but rather 100%. This is where statistical models collide with personal real world experience.
Not surprisingly there is a run on face masks and hand sanitizer, it’s human nature to want to take control of your own situation with proactive measures, even if they are ultimately moot because of efficacy or low risk rates. As much as it pains me to do this, I actually agree with VP Biden because it’s premature for any government to project the actual risk with this virus. This flu pandemic may blow over and be a footnote in the annals of infectious diseases but then again it may not… the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic played out over 2 years and the more recent SARS epidemic proved to be very deadly, killing 20% of the people infected with it.