The 2009 Swine Flu Outbreak: This Is Not A Test

April 26th, 2009 by Clint Posted in biology | 1 Comment »

My thoughts are with the victims of the Flu outbreak in the U.S. and Mexico. This is a historic event, and we can expect the news to stay saturated with coverage reminiscent of the SARS outbreak of 2003. This morning in Mexico City, 20 are confirmed dead from the Flu, mass gatherings have been suspended, and schools will remain closed until at least May 6.

You can avoid infection by avoiding close contact with the sick, by cleaning your hands often with soap and water, and by keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you are sick, you must stay at home, which you should be in the habit of doing anyway.

There is some good news. The outbreak was discovered much sooner than I expected we could, and that will save lives. To help show how this saves lives, below is a generic epidemic curve.


Disease spreads from person to person up to a peak, and then tapers off as potential hosts are exhausted from the population. Underneath the curve is a second curve, showing deaths caused by infections. The reason I work on disease detection is to try and make these curves as small as possible. The earlier you intervene in an outbreak with treatment and quarantine, the smaller the curves will be.


This Flu strain is H1N1, and in case you’re wondering, there IS significance to the 1’s. This is THE Flu. H1N1 is the type of the 1918 Flu that raged across the world, killed more than twice as many people as World War I in a tiny fraction of the time, and for some reason disappeared from our collective memory. For the “normal” flu that we see every single year, the mortality rate is about 0.1% (1 person dies for every 1,000 infected). A low estimate of the 1918 Flu mortality rate was 2% (200 people died for every 1,000 infected).

Part of the reason so many die from this strain is that one of the most magnificent things in our corner of the universe, the vertebrate immune system, becomes perfectly useless by overreacting so badly that it kills us. Healthy young adults make up the majority of deaths because they have very strong immune systems which can’t stop fighting.

Flu Shy, Don’t Bother Me

There is hope that we can strike down this outbreak like we did SARS. If we succeed, then there’s a chance we’re not too far from finally stopping the “normal” Flu, which every year kills 30,000 people just in the U.S. That’s ten times as many people as perished on September 11, and 75% of the yearly car accident fatalities.

I’ve been telling people I want to make a Flu movie. I imagined it as narrative fiction, and desperately don’t want the opportunity to make it a documentary. We can tell some great stories about love and life centered on the Flu. We don’t need the ridiculous fictitious diseases that haunt theaters. I’m horrified that we accept the Flu as a normal thing, and the coming of it as uncontrollable as Fall or Winter. I hope it goes the fuck away.

One Response to “The 2009 Swine Flu Outbreak: This Is Not A Test”

  1. [...] university initially announced that the peak of the expected epidemiological curve would hit at the end of October.  Well into November, I have noticed an overall decrease in [...]

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