The number of cases of swine flu are steadily increasing worldwide, with 11 countries reporting 257 cases of swine flu (mostly mild), as of today. According to the WHO, the U.S. has been hit the hardest, with 109 cases, and 1 death. Mexico is now at 97 cases and 7 deaths.
Reports throughout the week have shown a huge variation in the number of actual deaths. Some news reports have stated 149 deaths, and now the actual number has reportedly dropped from 20 to only 7 deaths? Or wait, is it 12 deaths? Which number is correct?
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova indicated that "more rigorous tests had forced a recount". Hmm...
Whether or not infection by this strain of swine flu (rather, H1N1 influenza, as it is now called to spare the pork industry) really puts you at risk for death, it is important to understand how influenza kills, and what you can do about it.
How does swine flu cause death?
Swine flu and seasonal human flu are nearly identical in the way the viruses cause disease and death. The virus attaches and enters into cells in the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs), but is pretty much limited to those tissues. The virus is toxic to the respiratory tract cells and causes the immune system to respond with an influx of white blood cells and immune molecules known as cytokines. The influx of white blood cells results in some blocking of the airways, as well as damage to the lungs.
Cytokine activity within the respiratory tract results in inflammation, resulting in symptoms associated with flu: fever, chills, exhaustion, loss of appetite, and cough, as well as other respiratory symptoms.
In severe cases of untreated influenza, the infection can lead to pneumonia, which is the main cause of influenza death. In some cases of influenza, damage to the respiratory tissue allows other infectious microbes to invade and cause secondary infections, leading to bacterial pneumonia, which can also be fatal when untreated. There are an estimated 36,000 deaths due to seasonal influenza each year in the US. The current swine flu outbreak has caused a total of 7 deaths in Mexico and 1 death in the US (according to WHO).
What precautions can be taken to make sure I won't die from swine flu?
There is evidence that many of the swine flu-related deaths from the current outbreak occurred in people who had underlying health conditions or in people who waited before seeking medical help. It is therefore very important to seek medical help if you show signs of flu. But also keep in mind that flu symptoms are distinct from cold symptoms.
Depending on the severity of disease, your doctor may prescribe Relenza or Tamiflu, two antiviral drugs that can help to reduce the duration of disease.
Other very simple prevention tips? Wash hands frequently and thoroughly. Use Purell (or other liquid sanitizers) when handwashing facilities are not available. Don't pick your nose.
Didn't bird flu kill a lot of people? How is swine flu different from bird flu?
The bird flu scare of 2003 was very serious and deadly to people who were infected. However, it is important to remember that the number of cases was very small, and the infection was spread from bird-to-person, not person-to-person, which is what warranted the mass slaughtering of poultry (in contrast to the unnecessary and irresponsible slaughtering of 400,000 Egyptian pigs who had nothing to do with the outbreak). Unlike the current strain of swine flu, which has been mild, certain types of bird flu can cause very serious disease as a result of a over-activated immune response. As far as current statistics show, the 2009 swine flu virus is far less deadly than the 2003 bird flu virus.
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