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No need to panic

Vacations aren’t a time to ponder potential adversities. But with all the media attention being given to H5N1 – the bird-flu – I thought I would do a bit of Internet research on the topic while sitting on the lanai on this next to last day of our wonderful Hawaiian holiday. The Centers for Disease Control tell us that an influenza pandemic is a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new influenza A virus appears in the human population, causes serious illness, and then spreads easily from person to person worldwide. They also tell us that pandemics are different from seasonal outbreaks, or epidemics, of influenza. Seasonal outbreaks are caused by subtypes of influenza viruses that already circulate among people, whereas pandemic outbreaks are caused by new subtypes, subtypes that have never circulated among people, or by subtypes that have not circulated among people for very long. There have been three major new influenza pandemics during the past century: the Spanish flu of 1918-19, the Asian flu of 1957-58, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69. The most virulent was the Spanish flu, which may have killed 50 million people worldwide, including 500,000 in the United States. Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time until the next influenza pandemic occurs. The severity of the next pandemic cannot be predicted, but the CDC’s modeling studies suggest that the impact of a pandemic on the United States could be substantial. In the absence of vaccination or drugs, it has been estimated that in the United States a “mediumlevel” pandemic could cause 200,000 deaths and up to three and half times that many hospitalizations. It’s also estimated that as much as a third of the U.S. population could be affected by an influenza pandemic.To exacerbate matters, influenza pandemics normally last longer than most public health emergencies and may include waves of influenza activity separated by months. Not only that, but the number of health-care workers available to respond can be expected to be reduced while resources in many locations could be limited, depending on the severity and spread of the pandemic.So does H5N1 really place us in serious jeopardy? Recently, Strategic Forecasting ran a great piece on the topic and cited the many variables that should be taken into account when contrasting the bird flu’s potential in 2005 vis-a-vis the Spanish flu of 1918.To begin with, since H5N1was detected in December 2003, there have only been 121 documented infections of bird flu, 91 of whom contracted the virus in Vietnam. In all cases where information on the chain of infection has been confirmed, the virus was transmitted either by repeated close contact with fowl or via the ingestion of insufficiently cooked chicken products. Stratfor further opined, “A bird flu pandemic among the human population is broadly in the same category as a meteor strike. Of course it will happen sooner or later – and when it does, watch out! But there is no – absolutely no – particular reason to fear a global flu pandemic this flu season.”Some of the facts cited were that only 115 people have caught the bug during the past three years. The research also notes that the first-ever human case of H5N1 was not in 2003 but in 1997, suggesting that there is not anything fundamentally new in this year’s bird flu scare.Other significant differences between 1918 and today were also discussed, but the two that struck me as most salient were that in 1918 the world was at war. We all know that the First World War was fought in the least sanitary of conditions; i.e., in the trenches. Soldiers not only faced degrading health from the battlefield, but even when they weren’t fighting at the front they were living in barracks. Wartime conditions ensured that soldiers on both sides were not in the best of health and constantly exposed to whatever diseases existed. It should also be noted that in 1918, military personnel were “the leading vector for infecting civilian populations the world over.”The other notable difference between now and 87 years ago is that we are healthier and live in an infinitely more sanitized environment. No, I didn’t go to medical school, but under normal circumstances it’s a reasonable assumption that the healthier a person is prior to becoming ill, the better his or her chances are of surviving that illness. Therefore, it may not be a bad idea to pay particular attention to prevention – diet, exercise and rest.But perhaps the most reassuring bit of news is that as of last week not a single case of human-to-human communicability has been confirmed, a fact I find very comforting. Nevertheless, as I sit here savoring my morning cup of coffee while overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean, a Brazilian cardinal (one of the numerous species of birds that inhabit the island of Kauai) has casually alighted next to my breakfast plate. And while I’m not about to go into panic mode over its appearance, I just asked my significant other if she wouldn’t mind popping a replacement English muffin in the toaster – just in case.Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net Vail, Colorado


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