The changing flu landscape

What you knew yesterday about the swine flu might not be true today. Are you keeping up with the information fast enough? Have you passed on information that’s incorrect?

Mexico’s death toll appeared to be rapidly accelerating, some reports yesterday had put the total at more than 150. But…

Only 26 cases, including seven deaths, have been definitively confirmed to be swine flu, [Mexico Health Secretary Jose] Cordova said.

The virus is suspected in 159 deaths, and other reports suggest that some of these might be caused by unrelated respiratory ailments.

And then there’s the big number, you know, of people who die from the flu every year.

U.S. officials stressed there is no need for panic, noting that flu outbreaks are quite common every year. The CDC estimates about 36,000 people in the U.S. alone died of flu-related causes each year, on average, in the 1990s.

Do the math, that’s just shy of 100 a day.

We were also told yesterday to call it “H1N1” and not “swine flu,” because “this really isn’t swine flu,” as Agriculture Secretary (and former Iowa governor) Tom Vilsack said. The name change was ostensibly because the virus had genetic components from humans, birds and swine, and not to assure the weary consumer that pork is safe. But…

The deadly H1N1 influenza virus that’s fueling fears of a global pandemic is a hybrid of two common pig flu strains, scientists who have studied the disease told Tuesday. Earlier reports called it a combination of pig, human and avian influenza strains.

“This is what we call a reassortment between two currently circulating pig flu viruses,” said Andrew Rambaut, a University of Edinburgh viral geneticist. “Why it’s emerged in humans is anyone’s guess. It hasn’t been seen before in pigs as far as I know.”

Sorry, pork producers, you’re probably just going to have to tough this one out. “Swine flu” is easier to say and understand than “H1N1.”

So, to some it all up: Take caution, but don’t panic. But you haven’t been watching 24-hour news channels, right?

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