In response to my Philadelphia Inquirer piece “Swine Flu Epidemic Ends with a Whimper,” predictably public health community members have squealed that the only reason the disease proved so mild is because of their own Herculean efforts. I saw the same thing with heterosexual AIDS and SARS. So it was that Steven J. Barrer, M.D. wrote to the newspaper:
Michael Fumento’s assertion that the swine flu epidemic predicted for this flu season was a medical scandal ignores the enormous effort of the country’s public-health sector to mitigate the potential seriousness of this disease.
Vaccine production was accelerated, public education was aggressive, and awareness was heightened worldwide. Every physician I know made an effort to educate patients. Fumento also belittles simple efforts such as hand sanitizer, but that, and frequent hand-washing, muffling sneezes in your arm rather than hand, and minimizing casual physical contact, are widely credited with reducing the spread of contagious disease.
They are among the efforts hospitals are using, successfully, to reduce their infection rates.
Diseases don’t go away. We just get better at dealing with them. I consider the mildness of this flu season a stunning public-health success.
Yet as my piece noted the epidemic peaked in mid-October, before anybody was vaccinated. It also observed that Australia and New Zealand had remarkably mild epidemics that ended before any vaccine was available.
Hand sanitizer and handwashing appears to have no impact on the spread of flu, as this article discusses. I found a recent medical journal article claiming to show that it does help, but when you actually look at their data you see they provided good evidence that it does not. If that’s the best they can do, it tells you something.
Handwashing was basically thrown at the public as a talisman and because, lacking a vaccine, the public health community and especially the CDC felt it had to offer something for the public to do, even if it was worthless. (Also, handwashing does protect against colds and food poisoning.)
In light of this, it’s hard to see how mealy-mouthed terms like “aggressiveness” and “awareness” played any role. The simple fact, as I took great pains to note, is that swine flu has a vastly milder impact on the immune system than seasonal flu. I’ve even explained why, that we’ve been exposed to H1N1 viruses as part of the seasonal flu since 1997. That also explains why children are disproportionately affected. Where did I first write this? In the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
So that’s it. End of ball game. The WHO knew the score when it declared its pandemic. And doctors like Barrer could have known this because they had access to the same medical literature that I had access to in which fatality rates were compared – and he had access to my previous Philly Inquirer piece that also discussed these rates. I did Barrer’s research for him.
Finally, diseases obviously do just go away. Every year, in countries with or with flu vaccine, in times before vaccines existed, influenza has struck, crested, and then faded away. What did medical science do to make the Spanish flu disappear in 1919?
Public health has done many wonderful things in this country. How much do you worry about smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever, or any number of other diseases that used to sweep through this country periodically like a scythe? But the swine flu hoax is a serious black eye – as was hetero AIDS, SARS, and most recently avian flu – and no amount of wriggling and rationalization will change that.