Monday, 29 June 2009

Swine flu

A fatal disease?

A third death ‘related to swine flu’ was confirmed today. Its very sad, not least because this case was a child, who incidentally had other serious health medical conditions.

We know no more at this stage, so any comment on the specifics would be both wrong and speculative.

But it is worth commenting on how cases of this sort are reported in the press and the conclusions that members of the public might draw.

What exactly does it mean, swine flu related...., other serious medical conditions.. ?

So far there have been 5937 reported laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu – or to use a more technical name A/H1N1. These people have come from all walks of life, most may have been relatively healthy and young, and the vast majority have recovered uneventfully. It should be no surprise if some of these infections have happened in people with other conditions like diabetes, heart disease, other less common chronic diseases where the body is more susceptible to common viral infections either because of the nature of the disease or because of treatment with drugs like steroids or chemotherapy. These individuals have as much chance of catching the A/H1N1 virus as anyone else.

So the question is this if some one in this latter group dies, is the death due to the viral infection or is it due to the underlying condition with the H1N1 virus infection being an incidental occurrence.

It’s an important point. If the deaths are due to the virus infection and would not have happened without the virus then we have one sort of situation. If on the other if a small number of people (3 in the UK ,as it happens, at least thus far) died with, rather than of, the H1N1 virus, then we are dealing with no more serious an infection than the regular winter flu we see every year.

Media reports and official press releases that fail to make this distinction do us no favours. The public might well conclude that we have a dangerous new virus on our hands. Maybe we do and maybe it will yet mutate into something more serious than we have seen so far, But all the evidence thus far is to the contrary.

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