Over the past week, concern has gone global over swine flu, with WHO Director Margaret Chan forecasting the “…the first pandemic of the 21st Century”.
Global pandemic. By definition, the emergence of a disease, ‘prevalent over a whole country or the world’ and the highest possible stage of the WHO’s influenza alert phases. In reality, whilst the move to phase 6 – or pandemic status – does signal a significant change to the global spread of the virus, the WHO’s latest declaration does not imply that there has been a notable change to the number of deaths or serious cases reported around the world.
Nevertheless, on Thursday, June 11th 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) used the term pandemic to describe a flu outbreak for the first time since 1968, when the Hong Kong Flu wreaked havoc and killed over one million people. First identified in Mexico in late March, the initial stages of A(H1N1) were more associated with uncertainty and confusion, than with the certain knowledge of a deadly killer. Yet, as we’ve learnt more about the genetic makeup of the virus over the last month, and as the number of reported cases has surged the world over, initial unpredictability has become knowledge and the reality of the situation has worsened in several extremely palpable ways.
Unquestionably, the sheer number of cases made the declaration of pandemic status all but inevitable in itself, with the number of cases in Australia alone having jumped from around 500 to 1,200 in a single week. Indeed, since the emergence of the virus in late March, almost 28,000 cases of the virus have been reported, with around 141 confirmed deaths across more than 70 countries. It is the symbolism behind these numbers, more than anything else, that has led to the change in rhetoric. Hong Kong has closed all of its nurseries and primary schools for two weeks following the illness of 12 pupils and world governments are pondering where first to target their resources, with vaccines for the H1N1 now in production with some of the world’s biggest drugs companies.
Yet, whilst there are undeniably a number of genuine reasons for concern, as our understanding of the virus has evolved, signs of hope have also emerged: first, although pandemic status has been met in terms of the overall number of cases, and whilst the virus has increased its global coverage after spreading to at least two different regions of the world, there has been no real shift in the operational status of the virus itself. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu are considered to be successful in treating those affected and doses of the H1N1 vaccine itself could be ready as early as October. Symptoms remain essentially similar to those of seasonal flu and it appears that the over 60s may well have developed an immunity to the virus. “It is global and fulfilling the requirements of a pandemic” says Professor John Oxford, virology expert from St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, “but I don't think anyone should worry because nothing drastic has happened between yesterday and today”, he said.
The first death of a patient suffering from the disease in the UK has also been met with a mood of acceptance, with Professor Hugh Pennington, a bacteriologist at Aberdeen University remarking: "It's very sad but with the number of cases we have seen it is really something which was always going to happen sooner or later”. For the health services of the world’s poorest countries, WHO Chief Margaret Chan warns, the spread of the virus could prove far more crippling. "Developing countries have the greatest vulnerability and the least resilience. They will be hit the hardest and take the longest to recover," she told a UN forum on global health, Monday.
So, whilst the WHO will have to manage the increased anxiety and concern that pandemic status will unavoidably bring, the life of the virus itself remains essentially the same. As Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General put it last week, "This is a formal statement about the geographical spread of the disease. It is not in itself a cause for alarm". And until we know more, there is no room for panic.
World Health Organization – Whilst perhaps lacking the research content that you might find in other places (such as the CDC), the WHO website is the first place to go for all official updates and alerts from the World Health Organization. Situation maps, interactive timelines of cases and detailed explanations of the alert phase levels are all valuable resources.
Daily Chart on Cases by Country from the Economist – Updated on a reasonably regular basis (if not quite daily), this research chart from the Economist Newspaper is a useful, well presented way of tracking the number of cases by country and any resulting fatalities. Whilst the Americas unsurprisingly dominate the top of the table, Britain currently finds herself 6th, with only one verified fatality thus far.
Swine Flu Q&A from the Telegraph – Easily accessible, current and well informed. This handy Q&A from the Telegraph takes a good run through some of the most commonly occurring questions pertaining to the virus. Be it definitions and jargon or signs and symptoms, this short piece from one of Britain’s quality broadsheets is a reliable and genuinely informative first stop on the road to understanding.
HealthMap – Not only is HealthMap arguably the most easily accessible web mapping service for the tracking of swine flu, but it’s also equally apt when it comes to all other known global outbreaks – ranging from Typhoid to Measles! Powered by Google Maps and providing live updates via Twitter, this is a great resource for those of us that want minute by minute, case by case updates – globally. Just don’t get hooked.
Swine Flu Wiki – Self explanatory but extremely helpful, Flu Wiki combines country-by-country reports on local outbreaks with up-to-date news and Twitter feeds from the most authoritative of sources – including the WHO and CDC.
NHS Swine Flu Latest – Updated by the hour, this dependable (if somewhat basic) resource provides the latest facts and figures on the number of cases, hospitalizations and fatalities within the United Kingdom, alongside a plethora of links to other NHS and government based resources – including a symptom checker and a swine flu A-Z.
Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18