Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu

Some years back, I read a couple of books on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. One of the things they were very clear about was that it would happen again. A common virus, which most years lurks in the background killing a "mere" hundred thousand or so people, but which can evolve rapidly, spread easily and turn deadly quickly, combined with unprecedented global mobility, equals the potential for a global plague. Which is why the WHO and medical authorities keep a serious eye on it, and warns people when there's some danger of it heading that way. This has led to regular false alarms - such as the 1976 swine flu outbreak (where vaccination killed more people than the actual disease), or more recently "bird flu" (which still hasn't made the big leap to human-to-human transmission yet). But in the face of such danger, it is wise to be cautious.

This time round its swine flu, which has already killed 80 people in Mexico and has spread to the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand. 80 people doesn't sound like a lot, but its enough to classify the disease as an epidemic (meaning: "a lot more cases than expected"), and its virulence, spread and contagiousness is enough to classify it as a potential pandemic (meaning: "a lot more cases than expected over a large area"). For all that, it might be another false alarm - it could just peter out. Or it could be 1918 all over again. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing until it is too late.

What's interesting to me is that for all our advances in medical technology and disease monitoring, we are now more vulnerable than we were in 1918. Back then, countries could close their borders (we did - then made an exception because Bill Massey, the Prime Minister, was too important to wait with the hoi polloi. 8,000 people died as a result). Now, thanks to globalisation, we can't. Oh sure, the legal power exists, but the economic disruption it would cause means that no government (and particularly a "pro-business" government) would do so until it was already too late. Though with travel times now generally being shorter than incubation periods, its questionable whether such measures would be effective anyway.