A Break From Swine Flu Panic

April 30th, 2009 by Clint Posted in biology | No Comments »

Believe it or not, there is good news to be found on the 2009 swine flu outbreak. This post is a compilation of the news that’s been the most reassuring to me, and contains no bad news or further panicking. Really.

The first and best bit of good news is that many people now know the best ways to keep from catching the flu. Wash your hands often, keep your hands away from your face, and avoid contact with the ill. If we adopt this as a way of life, and not just as a panic response, we’ll see a dramatic fall in cold and flu infections at large.

The next piece of good news is that we haven’t seen a revision of casualty estimates to include recent hospital cases. This is an indication that we’re still in the early stages of the outbreak, which gives us the most leverage for intervention. And so far, as more cases of infection are being discovered, we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in fatalities that matches previous pandemics.

Have I mentioned that I work with some great people? The day before the media picked up on the Flu outbreak, my co-workers had a paper published in BMC Microbiology on work they did last year: “Conserved amino acid markers from past influenza pandemic strains”. Surprisingly relevant, huh?

[Update: An article in Wired, Swine Flu Genes Show Virus May Be Weak, published on May 5, featuring my boss and my co-worker, although the science has been sensationalized a bit.]

[Update: A news broadcast, Computers decipher H1N1 genetic secrets, that aired on June 14 featuring my co-workers. I also make an appearance in the video, sitting at a meeting.]

Which brings us to even more good news: based on the data in Jonathan’s paper, the circulating strain exhibits only a fraction of the markers associated with the worst pandemic strains. While there’s always a causation versus correlation concern, if the markers prove reliable, this may mean the current strain isn’t a worst-case reassortment. As an interesting aside, both the markers and the genome sequencing seem to indicate that the strain is primarily a swine strain with some avian characteristics.

To round things off, you can’t catch the flu by eating pork, and there are still multiple anti-virals that are considered effective at treating the circulating strain.

I hope the good news will keep rolling in, and that we’ll be able to look back at this as a modern model for handling outbreaks.

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