It is good to see that the World Health Organization (WHO) and various national governments are trying to put the H1N1 threat into proper perspective, following the first death recorded outside of the Americas in
the UK and in the light of the recent decision to upgrade the pandemic alert status from Phase 5 to Phase 6. At the same time, the WHO is sensibly still not recommending any travel restrictions.
Had advice against travel to certain locations been necessary, then the WHO would have issued it and while one death in the UK – and the first outside of the Americas – is obviously sad and unfortunate, it is hardly a license for some in the international media to cause unnecessary panic with stories that do not reflect the true impact, or otherwise, of H1N1 – either globally, or nationally.
At the same time, such wide media coverage for one unfortunate UK victim does rather belittle the loss of the other 145 that have tragically died around the world – after all, since when has one UK death been worth more than that of one Mexican citizen, or any other nationality for that matter? Such coverage also obscures the absolutely irrefutable fact that this 'pandemic' has actually killed very few people. As of June 12, the WHO says there have been nearly 30,000 cases reported in 74 countries and the two words that are important here in terms of genuine H1N1 diagnosed cases are 'laboratory-confirmed'.
At the same time, a fact that is not being reported widely enough is that the WHO continues to emphasise that the vast majority of those who have contracted H1N1 have made full recoveries without the need for any medication whatsoever.
The fact is that many of those who have died from H1N1 – dubbed 'the media flu' in some locations – have also had underlying health conditions, including the unfortunate 38-year old woman in Scotland. At the same time, this needs to be put into perspective since 'normal' seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people around the world every year and it is particularly dangerous to the elderly and those with existing underlying problems. By contrast, this H1N1 strain is almost exclusively targeting people under the age of 65.
In the latest WHO statement which acknowledges the UK victim, WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan says that the organisation still believes that the global impact of the pandemic will be moderate.
‘Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity. As we know from experience, severity can vary, depending on many factors, from one country to another. On present evidence, the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild symptoms and make a rapid and full recovery, often in the absence of any form of medical treatment.
‘Worldwide, the number of deaths is small. Each and every one of these deaths is tragic, and we have to brace ourselves to see more. However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe or fatal infections. We know that the novel H1N1 virus preferentially infects younger people. In nearly all areas with large and sustained outbreaks, the majority of cases have occurred in people under the age of 25 years. In some of these countries, around 2% of cases have developed severe illness, often with very rapid progression to life-threatening pneumonia.
‘The death of a woman suffering from H1N1 swine flu in Scotland is a sad reminder that this is not always a mild infection. This is not only the first confirmed death from H1N1 swine flu in Britain, but the first outside of the Americas. But it is not a signal that the virus is getting more virulent, or that people are at any greater threat. The vast majority of the 1,200-plus people who've had the virus in the UK have experienced mild symptoms and then fully recovered.’