Little flu, for now
By Jim Poling
It has not only been an unusually mild winter (except for last weekend), but an unusually mild influenza season. Everyone hopes it will stay that way.
Up to Feb. 1 there had been only 421 hospitalizations for flu reported in all of Canada. Reported flu deaths were 14 country wide.
That’s a huge improvement from last flu season when 7,719 people were hospitalized with influenza and 591 died. The year previous there were 5,284 hospitalizations and 331 deaths.
Light flu seasons tend to make us forget just how dangerous influenza really is. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that each year there are three to five million cases of severe influenza worldwide. Anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people a year die from it.
You have to approach those big numbers with some skepticism. Flu statistics are never totally accurate. They are based on computer models and quite a bit of guesswork. For instance, if a terminally ill cancer patient comes down with a flu bug and dies, did she die from influenza?
The last serious flu outbreak was in 2009. It was the H1N1 virus that became a pandemic which WHO said killed 285,000 people worldwide. A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak as compared to an epidemic, which is when a disease affects more people than usual for a region. No matter how light a flu season might be, none of us should ever become complacent about influenza. Last fall a report to the British government identified pandemic influenza as the highest priority natural hazards risk facing humans.
We are, however, far too complacent about the danger of avian influenza - the bird flu - and the virus breeding grounds of Asia.
Some health experts believe another flu pandemic is only a matter of time. Some have for years been predicting a flu pandemic that will infect more than one-third of the world’s population and kill hundreds of thousands.
It has happened before. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was a global disaster with 50 million deaths. There have been other flu pandemics since, including the 1967-68 Hong Kong flu, which I remember well because it sent me to the hospital.
Many believe the next flu pandemic will begin in China, the world’s main mixing bowl for bird flu.
Avian flu bugs live harmlessly in the bodies of waterfowl, such as ducks and geese. When these birds mix with domesticated poultry, or sometimes pigs, the flu virus gets passed on and can mutate. Most of these influenza viruses do not affect humans, but some do and cause epidemics, and even pandemics.
The flu virus world is like alphabet soup. H1N1. H5N1. H7N9. The names keep changing as the viruses mutate until one comes along that is the Big One that allows easy human-to-human transmission.
China is an excellent bird flu factory because it has huge open air poultry operations where waterfowl can easily mix in. And southern China lies inside major waterfowl migration routes, so there are many opportunities for waterfowl to pass along their viruses.
Worsening the situation is the world’s increasing appetite for chicken. Chicken rapidly is becoming the world’s most popular meat. Global poultry production is said to have quadrupled in the last few decades.
Poultry consumption and production is soaring in China. More of those open air - and in many cases unsanitary - markets or production areas increase the chances for bird flu virus production.
There is not much average folks can do to reduce the chances of a serious flu outbreak. We can only hope that agencies like WHO, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies are diligent in their work.
We all should become better educated about flu. There are many misconceptions, such as cold weather being a cause of the flu. There often is more flu in colder weather but that’s only because people spend more time indoors, increasing contact and the chances of spreading germs.
Better educated and certainly more aware so we can prod our politicians. We don’t need our politicians and bureaucrats dozing like they were during the 2002-2003 SARS disaster.