Pandemic expert: If swine flu happens here, you might not noticeIf the swine flu now frightening much of the world does reach the level of a pandemic and if it reaches the Red River Valley — life might not change at all. “We suffer from too much information,” said Dr. Jeff Ryan, an expert on epidemic diseases. And too much information, he said, is causing people to think too much about swine flu and scare themselves.
By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald
If the swine flu now frightening much of the world does reach the level of a pandemic and if it reaches the Red River Valley — life might not change at all.
“We suffer from too much information,” said Dr. Jeff Ryan, an expert on epidemic diseases. And too much information, he said, is causing people to think too much about swine flu and scare themselves. Some are showing up at hospitals fearing that every ache is a sign of the flu, he said.
In a mild pandemic, which is what the swine flu would most likely result in under current conditions, Ryan said, it will be no worse than the usual flu season. Most people, he said, forget that the plain old flu kills about 34,000 a year in the U.S.
A moderate pandemic would kill not quite three times that, and a severe pandemic would kill 1.8 million.
That last one is the one that would change everything for a while, though, at least in terms of emergency measures; a while could mean about eight to 10 weeks, Ryan said. That’s about how long the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the worst on record, stayed in any single place in the U.S.
For now, Ryan said, residents and businesses should be prepared. For residents, he said, a four-day supply of food and water is a good idea, and for businesses, being ready to reduce the risk of infection and tell customers about it would ease fears.
Ryan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and now an assistant professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, was in town to speak at UND and run a public health exercise for medical students.
The definition of a pandemic isn’t what many people think. It simply means that a disease has spread far and wide, not that it’s necessarily making very many people sick or killing them.
That’s more like an epidemic, which is when a disease hits a population harder than normal.
So, a pandemic has many levels. Right now, the swine flu is not yet a pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.
If the swine flu does reach a mild pandemic level, Ryan said, just about the only thing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending is sick people stay at home, not much different than in any flu season.
In fact, the CDC defines a mild pandemic as about the level of a seasonal flu outbreak in the U.S.
The problem is the flu virus, like many viruses, is extremely unpredictable, he said. Viruses that are able to reproduce their genetic material with few mutations are more predictable and easier for the body to recognize as an intruder, he said.
But the flu virus has a “sloppy mechanism of replication,” meaning it might take on chunks of genetic material from other viruses, becoming very hard for the body to recognize and fight.
The swine flu virus that’s raising alarms this year seems to him to be a case of the swine flu mixing genetic material with the bird flu and becoming something much different.
A moderate pandemic, equivalent to the 1958 Asian flu pandemic, would be more disruptive, Ryan said, perhaps necessitating “draconian” measures. Schools might close, public events might be canceled, perhaps by government order, and people would stay away from one another.
Some of these things are already in practice, though not widely.
Ryan said on his way to UND, he saw some foreign passengers at the Atlanta airport wearing surgical masks. He knows of schools that have closed because the seasonal flu got too many kids sick, he said.
Another precautionary measure, he said, is to split school into two shifts to reduce the number of students in a classroom at a time, allowing them to sit farther apart.
The CDC recommends schools consider closing for as long as four weeks. It also says workers should think about working from home and avoiding face-to-face meetings.
A severe pandemic, equivalent to the 1918 pandemic, would turn things upside down.
“It’s a problem of unlimited potential, and we’re living in communities that have limited resources,” Ryan said. “The biggest problem that I see is the medical system, which is already taxed, is going to be overwhelmed to the point of collapse.”
Hospitals would have to care for a massive influx of flu patients, he said, and still deal with heart attacks and auto accidents. And they might have to do it with some of their staff members sick at home, he said.
In 1918, about 45 million Americans had to be hospitalized because of the flu. Grand Forks County’s pandemic plan, an extrapolation of the national estimates, says 2,200 residents would be hospitalized.
Every sector of society would be affected, Ryan said, from schools to public utilities to businesses. The food supply could be temporarily disrupted, he said, and so too with the electricity supply if businesses didn’t have pandemic plans in case too many employees got sick.
The CDC recommends that schools close for as long as 12 weeks under such a scenario and, in general, people stay away from public places. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that communities that did more of these sorts of things earlier back in 1918 suffered less.
In spite of it all, Ryan said he doesn’t expect people to panic, which is the usual misconception. In a flu pandemic, people would behave as they do in other major disasters, he said. “The good neighbor rule is true more often than not.”
One potential impact of a pandemic is it could harm the world’s economy.
“What a time for a pandemic,” Ryan said. “The recession. Banks are falling apart. All the things that are going on in the world today. When people get down, nature kicks you in the teeth.”
Researchers have found over the years that depression can weaken people’s immune system and it’s well-known that the recession has taken a toll on the emotions of many.
If a lot of people get sick and businesses had to close, Ryan said, that’s going to cost money. Mexico, the first place swine flu was detected, lost more than $2 billion because of business closures, he said.
Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.