Swine Flu Deadlier Than Thought


A swine flu pandemic in 2009 cost the lives of, according to contemporary World Health Organization figures, some 18,500 people. That was the number of laboratory-confirmed cases, but more recent research, taking into account victims who may not have had access to proper medical care, has led the international organization to revise that figure upwards. In fact, the new statistic cited puts the death toll at more than 15 times the original count, attributing some 284,500 deaths to the disease. The number swells to over half a million when people with pre-existing health problems that were exacerbated by the infection are included.

That pandemic occurred around nine decades after the previous major outbreak of swine flue, in 1918, which struck 500 million people and killed as many as 20 percent of them, more than one in every 30 people on Earth at the time. Another outbreak happened in 1976, confined to Fort Dix in New Jersey, and another one the next year in what was the the Soviet Union. The culprits in these outbreaks were strains of the H1N1 virus, which is common in pigs and an occupational hazard of hog farmers and livestock veterinarians. However, only around 50 pig-to-human transmissions have been identified since in the half-century or so it became possible to detect.

In the aftermath of the 2009 pandemic, vaccine serum for H1N1 has been added to the annual seasonal flu shot given to patients in the United States. Many people, however, do not get vaccinated, either due to misplaced skepticism leading to doubts about the safety of efficacy of the vaccine or due to a perceived lack of resources. Increasingly, subsidized vaccination is available at low or no cost for those who might not otherwise be able to get it, but education is still necessary to answer the doubts and ensure people are informed about the need to be vaccinated.

Other preventative measures can help supplement vaccination, even when too few people are vaccinated for herd immunity to necessarily take effect. People who might have been infected or exposed should wash their hands after coming in from outdoors. Surfaces in the home and car should also be cleaned regularly.

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