So now it’s clear to everybody: the swine flu, aka H1N1, was just a joke. It was slated as a dangerous pandemic that could kill many people and therefore deserved urgent large-scale vaccination. Of course, following a suggestion that came directly from World Health Organization (no less) all industrialized nations ordered massive amounts of vaccine doses. The small club of producers (Novartis, Glaxosmith and Baxter), collected a huge amount of money. Was it worthwhile? Was it rational?
First of all let’s compare the aggressiveness of the different kinds of flu. A normal seasonal flu strain, the one that we see every winter, usually infects 340-1000M humans per year, killing 250-500K of them. In other words, every day we have on average 1000 deaths from seasonal flu and we don’t see the need to say something about that on national TV. On the other hand H1N1 so far infected approximately 700M humans killing less than 15K. This means H1N1 is 20 times less dangerous than normal flu! By comparison, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 20 million people (1000 times more than H1N1).
Now, one could say this is thanks to the vaccination program, right? So let’s see what happened to the vaccines. Distribution officially started in early October and the US so far declared to have distributed approximately 100 million doses. Still, most Americans declared they will not get their children vaccinated. In Italy the National Health Ministry bough 24 million doses but so far only one million was used. 184M€ were thrown out of the window. Many European states are in the same boat with Italy and now are trying to sell-off the doses to the African countries. So no, it’s not thanks to the vaccine.
But then why did we buy so many doses? Of course, because the pharmaceutical industry raised a lot of money and they know very well how to use part of that money for political “contributions” and lobbying. Not all countries are subject to this lobby action. Some of them are still capable of rational reasoning and to save their taxpayer’s money.
Also, Associate Press on May 20 wrote:
In any case, mass producing a pandemic vaccine would be a gamble, as it would take away manufacturing capacity for the seasonal flu vaccine for the flu that kills up to 500,000 people each year. Some experts have wondered whether the world really needs a vaccine for an illness that so far appears mild.
The 1976 swine flu outbreak, also known as the swine flu fiasco, or the swine flu debacle, was a strain of H1N1 influenza virus that appeared in 1976. Infections were only detected from January 19 to February 9, and were not found outside Fort Dix. The outbreak is most remembered for the mass immunization that it prompted in the United States. The strain itself killed one person and hospitalized 13. However, side-effects from the vaccine caused five hundred cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome and 25 deaths.
Emphasis is in the original.
Of course, it’s easy in retrospect to say that there was nothing to worry about. But if you go back and look at the science that we had on hand when this flu first appeared, it was a perfect storm.
First off, we’d just cracked the code of the 1918 flu and determined what it was that made it unique and probably made it so deadly.
Second, we discovered a new strain of flu which bore many of the hallmarks of the 1918 flu’s virulence.
At the same time, this was a flu which, as far as we knew, had no existing resistances in the human population.
Put those together and you have a basis for believing that a flu pandemic on par with 1918 was brewing.
What we didn’t know: 1) the current H1N1 strain has a close cousin that erupted during the 50s and 60s, and anyone exposed to that flu is unlikely to contract the current H1N1 2) though many of the hallmarks of the 1918 flu are present in the current H1N1, it appears not to have the link to complicating factors that killed so many in 1918 3) unseasonable cold throughout the U.S. slowed even what little infectious power this H1N1 strain had.
So no, I don’t think anything was done wrong. I’d rather mobilize massive effort around a disease that we have evidence for linking with 1918 rather than treat it like any other flu. If it happens to be a dud, I’m not going to complain about not dying.