Once upon a time, post-monsoon was reserved for mosquito-borne disease headlines, but lately we are getting busier discussing “swine flu”. So, I am forced to compare influenza threat with the one posed by our eternal nemesis, the mosquito.
To start with, there is a need to understand that popular name “swine flu” is a misnomer.
The Influenza virus comes in four basic types of A, B, C and D; and it is the A type that is divided into subtypes based on two proteins on its outer shell: the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). There are 18 different H subtypes and 11 different N subtypes that offer us different combination of H1 to H18 and N1 to N11.
This doesn’t stop here (as H and N are just surface proteins) as any combination of H and N can have other qualities defining how the strain will behave. The so-called “swine flu” became famous for causing 2009 epidemic and hence it was identified as 2009 H1N1.
We in India were believed to have what is known as California strain, but National Institute of Virology (NIV) now claims that another Michigan strain is also taking rounds in India.
In short, flu viruses are difficult to identify and are, thus, impossible to label under one name like swine flu or H1N1. But, our love for force-naming these viruses has a real problem that needs to be understood.
At this point, we have almost one person per home down with viral fever. As this malaise passes through population, some develop complications and are taken to hospitals. When tested, they are found to be positive for “swine flu” and are put in isolation wards.
The problem is, we tend to look at only those deposited in hospitals as “swine flu” cases and as some do die from complications, we get really scary headlines of “264 swine flu cases detected and 20 people died”.
If we go by the published numbers of nearly 10% mortality, that too in a contagious disease like influenza, we have a deadly epidemic going on and drastic measures, including curfew should be in place.
Reality is, practically everyone in the city has encountered this seasonal flu virus and have fared according to his/her body type. Most would go through the infection without too may complications while a very few end up in hospitals. So, in all likelihood, if we take the real number of infections, the mortality would be less than 0.02 % (commonly observed in H1n1) that too in those with compromised immunity, making this headlines-grabbing epidemic a nondescript seasonal flu.
My bigger worry is that with “swine flu” getting so much media, public and in turn administrative attention; far more malicious malaria, dengue and chikungunya are now pushed to the side-lines.
Scary reality is that cases of vector-borne diseases have increased dramatically this year.
I look at this data as harbinger of doom, as it means that we are heading for exponential increase in deadlier vector-borne diseases over the years.
We need to grasp that influenza is a formidable foe, and almost unstoppable, but it turns deadly once in a century. As humanity saw in 1918-19, H1N1 can be devastating, but it is mostly a seasonal flu that is impossible to contain but with very low mortality rate.
The problem with vector-borne diseases is that they are slow and steady, but have far greater potential to kill. They are a threat that is constantly increasing, and we are at a point where they seem to be on the verge of blowing into a massive epidemic.
I really hope that false publicity that swine flu is getting is not taking away the attention of the city administration from the greater threat that mosquito is.