Swine Flu -- It's Not the Killer You Think It Is

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By Marc Siegel, M.D.FOX News Medical Contributor/Associate Professor, NYU School of Medicine/Author, "False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear and Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic"

I was listening to a conference call on Friday, organized by the NYC Health Department about -- you guessed it -- swine flu (now known as H1N1). The discussion centered around "Influenza-like illness" and it was soon clear to me that...

1) It is a late influenza season this year and some of these illnesses are from the garden-variety mild influenza B.

2) A lot of the so-called "influenza cases" are really just reports by worried people with the sniffles. When all is said and done, it is looking more and more like H1N1 (a designation which describes two proteins on the surface of the flu virus which help it spread) will end up being a mild, over-hyped virus despite the fact that it is new.

In each case, Some of this overreaction was due to a distortion of the scientific information about the virus itself. In 1976, when a swine flu virus appeared to kill a military recruit and then be present in the blood of 500 others (who never got sick) this led to a massive hysteria and vaccination program for a pandemic that never occurred. Forty millon Americas were vaccinated and ascending paralysis (also known as Guillain Barre Syndrome) was associated with recipients in close to 1,000 patients.

The fears that prompted the mass vaccination were due to the ghost of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed at least 50 million worldwide. In 1976 and 2003 SARS, and again in 2006 with the bird flu, false assumptions were made connecting the memory of 1918 with another potential scourge.

Back in 1976 the prevailing theory was that pigs had been the source of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which was later disproven but served as an impetus for the hysteria at the time. In 2005, the knowledge that the 1918 scary virus was "bird-like" led the fearmongers to point a finger at an equally scary H5N1 virus that was killing millions of birds. But lost in the panic was the knowledge that human pandemics had likely never been caused by an H5 virus before.

In the current swine flu scare the virus is assumed to be a more powerful human killer than it actually is. In reality it appears to losing virulence as it spreads human to human and is not that transmissable, and is NOT becoming widespread.

The vast overreaction to this virus and its potential has severe economic consequences as it did previously in 1976, 2003, and 2006. This time the hysteria may lead to billions of dollars lost to the travel industry, tourism, the Mexican economy, and to closing schools due to hysterical children and overreacting nurses. Vice President Biden's statement that we should all avoid planes, trains, and crowded places was not at all consistent with the very low prevalence of the virus. It made me think he had become disoriented and suddenly thought he was back in 1918! Even President Obama's statement that we should wash our hands (of course we should, they are loaded with bacteria and viruses of all kinds) sent the wrong message that there is far more of this particular virus around than there actually is. (The chance that this virus is on your hands as you read this is extremely close to zero).

Despite the fact that you can't get this virus from eating pork, Egypt is destroying its pigs and several other countries are not importing pigs from the U.S. or Mexico. This is another form of hysteria.

Perhaps the greatest overreaction of all is the new pandemic alert system that the World Health Organization developed in response to the 2005 bird flu scare (an alert system developed in response to a scare??). Though it is reasonable to call a pandemic for an extensive spread of a new strain of killer flu to many parts of the world at once, what is sorely lacking in this alert system is any counting of actual cases or number of deaths before raising the alert level. As a result, we may end up with the first pandemic in history with less than a thousand deaths. Consider that the last pandemic, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, which was controlled with the help of vaccines, public health measures, and treatments for secondary infections with antibiotics, killed 750,000 worldwide.

It look like H1N1 is another pandemic of mostly of fear -- something that is stronger and more infectious than any virus.

Marc Siegel M.D., a FOX Medical Contributor, is the author of "False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear and Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic."