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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

High Summer, High Anxiety, High Fever?

July 15th has the right to consider itself smack dab in the middle of summer. High summer should be a time to relax - the fish are jumping. Instead, today's news is grimmer than day-old Eyewear. Depending on who you listen to, as reported by the BBC or The Guardian, death rates for previously healthy people are expected to amount to a) 25% of all cases or b) 20% of all cases. Worse, death rates are expected to be up to "1 in 200" of all who "seek medical advice from their doctor".

That rate seems higher than the current death rate of 0.28 per million the UK is experiencing at the moment, until one considers that most people don't have swine flu (yet). This 1:200 death rate means 5,000 for every million cases. Given that the government is predicting that 20% of the UK will (at a minimum) contract the H1N1 virus, and even before assuming the virus may mutate, that means, at a conservative estimate, 10 million Britons will get the flu. That's 50,000 deaths. Put another way, that's 10,000 deaths of otherwise young, healthy people, between the ages of 5 and 65, who, had this pandemic not happened, would've stayed alive, all things being equal. Since a predominant number of these are likely to be teenagers and twentysomethings, we're looking at maybe 6,000 young British people dying in the next 6 months.

The government clearly anticipates this - it is planning to cancel elective surgery this autumn, and to fast-track autopsies. Given that seasonal flu normally kills, in the UK, 5-7,000 people annually, this is, despite what some say, an alarming scenario.

Hopefully, the vaccinations can begin in October or November, which might manage (since there will only be enough for 50% of the population in 2009) to cut the death rate to 25,000 by Christmas. Unions are beginning to debate access to the vaccine - clearly, health care workers need it asap; but then, so do the police, and the army; and, I would argue, those also on the frontline - emergency workers. Lastly, teachers, who meet more viruses than anyone else but doctors, publicans, priests and news vendors, should be given access. Also, of course, children, the aged, diabetics, asthmatics, and those with other immune-system problems. In short - almost everyone but BBC executives, rock stars and real estate agents, will be legitimately vying for the first jab. Tough decisions ahead, and it may be something of a "post code lottery". Priests are suggesting we avoid Holy Water, so we know it is serious. I continue to be cautiously concerned.
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