The Complex Truth Behind the H1N1 Scare

swinefludancers-500Governments around the world spent millions if not billions of dollars fighting the great H1N1 (swine flu) “pandemic” of 2009 – a pandemic that never really materialized.

As of April 2010, when the virus had essentially run its course, the total number of Canadians who had died from the H1N1 “pandemic” was 428. Compare that to between 5000 and 8000 Canadians who die every year from “normal” influenza.

Worldwide just slightly more than 12,300 people died from H1N1 by last November. Compare that to more than 25,000,000 deaths from HIV/Aids since 1980.

Fuss not justified?

It seems the fuss over H1N1 was hardly justified. However, it is important to keep in mind that the big concern was that H1N1 had some characteristics that made it seem likely that it might mutate into a deadly “1918-style” pandemic. At least that’s what the experts at the WHO and elsewhere thought.

The great 1918 influenza outbreak at the end of WWI killed millions of people around the world. And world health officials – lacking a definitive set of reasons for why the 1918 pandemic even happened – constantly work against the background of such a possibility happening again.

Should I get vaccinated?

One thing is certain. It was not the Tamiflu vaccine that kept H1N1 in check. A significant majority of Canadians did not even get the vaccine. According to one study of Ontario H1N1 statistics, “The impact of immunization appears to have been tiny – reducing the outbreak by less than one per cent. Immunization prevented fewer than 20,000 cases of influenza illness and no more than three deaths. This is not nothing but it is a very small return for an outlay of more than $250 million.” – from The Real Lessons of H1N1

In any event there were questions right from the beginning whether Tamiflu would adequately protect people from H1N1. Given the rate at which flu viruses mutate it is never completely predictable how effective a particular vaccine is going to be.

H1N1 has also made health officials question their standard flu vaccination strategy. It has generally been assumed that the sick, elderly and very young are especially vulnerable to influenza, and should therefore be the ones who especially need the vaccine. But for whatever reason H1N1 seems to have infected somewhat younger people than “normal” influenza. We’ve all heard accounts of the otherwise “perfectly healthy” young people struck down by H1N1.

However, this tendency may have also been overstated. As Dr. Richard Schabas points out the median age of death in Canada from H1N1 was actually 53. And most younger people killed from the virus had other health issues that made them vulnerable.

Realistic conclusions

Early on I developed a pretty robust scepticism about the whole H1N1 pandemic thing. My general feeling about quasi-political pronouncements emanating from agencies like the UN, WHO, or the Ontario Chief Medical Officer is that they are usually motivated by empire-building and chest thumping.

That does not even begin to touch on the obvious sinister commercial implications of mandating the production and distribution of millions of dollars worth of vaccines to be distributed to the population at large.

I must say I’ve changed my mind fairly dramatically about the entire matter. It is almost embarassing to admit that I’ve come to realize these things are much more complicated than I was aware. The truth is, I had barely thought about the “science” of the matter – how viruses spread, how vaccines are developed and how they work, etc., etc. On these matters my opinion, and the opinions of the vast majority of us are virtually worthless.

My eyes were opened just a tiny bit by reading the book called Splendid Solution – Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. As it happens, long before developing the polio vaccine Salk worked for the US military to find a vaccine to prevent influenza and thereby avert a repeat of the 1918 pandemic. He was largely succesful where many others had failed.

Salk then went on to develop a vaccine against the polio virus. He didn’t do it alone – there were hundreds of researches working on all aspects of the problem.

What struck me about the process was the amazing complexity of it all. There’s a popular belief that many significant scientific discoveries are the result of an accident – you know, the mold growing in the dish that led to penicillin sort of thing. But what the movies about these things gloss over is the years of research that lead to these breakthrus.

I still believe there are many corrupt officials motivated by the wrong things. And I still think the general public is mostly in the dark about the real story behind most issues.

This is partly because the media sensationalize and present only a superficial view of issues. It is partly because people are uninformed or lazy. But it is mostly because the world is just a very complicated place.

Some Resources:
The real lessons of H1N1

As swine flu pandemic ends, Canada must rethink flu-fighting strategy: Expert

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