Get Some Perspective on Swine Flu | Science | Smithsonian

Get Some Perspective on Swine Flu

Panic seems to be spreading faster than the H1N1 (swine) flu. Egypt proposed killing all of the pigs in the country. China is quarantining Mexican nationals without any sign that they might be sick. The Vice President warned against traveling in confined spaces, like the subway. Frightened fliers k...

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Panic seems to be spreading faster than the H1N1 (swine) flu. Egypt proposed killing all of the pigs in the country. China is quarantining Mexican nationals without any sign that they might be sick. The Vice President warned against traveling in confined spaces, like the subway. Frightened fliers kicked a man off a United Airlines flight because he had a cold. (United, at least, rebooked and upgraded the poor guy with the sniffles.) Even in my office there’s been debate over the effectiveness of various types of faces masks.



But when you start looking at the numbers of confirmed swine flu cases, it just doesn’t look that bad:



As of this morning, 1124 people worldwide have been diagnosed with swine flu, and 26 people have died. Out of a population of 6.7 billion.



Think it’s worse if you look only at the United States? Think again. 286 people diagnosed and 1 death in a population of 304 million.



What about Mexico, where this may have begun? 590 people diagnosed and 25 deaths. Population: 110 million.



Not the end of the world (courtesy of flickr user Dr Craig)



For comparison, let’s try looking at the annual number of deaths by various causes in the United States, courtesy of the CDC*.

Cardiovascular disease: 856,030

Lung cancer: 159,292

Influenza and pneumonia: 63,001

Motor vehicle accidents: 45,343

Breast cancer: 41,491

Homicide: 18,124

Asthma: 3,884

Peptic ulcer: 3,478

Malnutrition: 3,003

Hodgkin’s disease: 1,272

Pregnancy and childbirth: 760

Meningitis: 669

Tuberculosis: 648

Whooping cough: 31



I don’t mean to imply that the swine flu couldn’t turn into something really bad. But right now the situation appears to be mild, with the CDC and the WHO and other health authorities having things under control. (Isn’t that why we hire these people?) Does it make sense to avoid public spaces or lock yourself in your home? Do we quarantine everyone who is sniffling through allergy season? Swine flu might not go away for a while, but if you start worrying now, you might give yourself an ulcer or a heart attack, and those are far more deadly than swine flu at the moment.



Instead, take sensible precautions, such as washing your hands, covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes and staying home if you’re sick. Of course you should pay attention to what is going on in your neighborhood and act accordingly. But like I said last week: Don’t panic.



*Note: This data, from 2005, was published in the National Vital Statistics Report, April 24, 2008. Numbers come from Table 10, All Ages.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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