Junkfood Science: Reality check — How have scary predictions about swine flu held up to reality?

September 09, 2009

Reality check — How have scary predictions about swine flu held up to reality?

The flu season is winding down in Australia, where their winter is nearing end. How did the expert claims, speculations and predictions of the deadly pandemic hold up to the facts?

Three months ago, public health experts and even the President of the Australian Medical Association were warning that one-third of the population would get swine flu. As late as last month, the Australian government had ordered 21 million doses of swine flu vaccine, enough to vaccinate the entire population.

In reality, as of noon today, the Australian Department of Health and Ageing reports that Australia has had 35,775 confirmed cases of pandemic H1N1. The experts had overstated the numbers who would get sick by 203-fold. There have been 162 deaths — a fraction (5.4%) of the 3,000 Australians who typically die from the seasonal flu each year.

It’s a similar story here in the United States. In July, we were hearing projections that as many as 40 percent of Americans could come down with the flu over the next two years and several hundred thousand could die. The government ordered 160 million doses of vaccine.

In reality, the pandemic H1N1 variant has proven to remain far less virulent (to be milder) than the seasonal flu here, just it's been in Australia. As of last week, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention data, the total number of influenza-related deaths in the United States — including from the H1N1 pandemic — have remained below epidemic levels and resulted in 2009 being the mildest flu year in more than a decade.

Despite perceptions among the public and portrayals in the media of extreme risks, medical professionals recognize that, while the H1N1 flu may spread easily, it causes a relatively mild flu in most people and there is no evidence that is has or is likely to mutate and become deadlier. “If we have to have influenza, I would clearly choose novel H1N1,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, just told the Wall Street Journal.

Fear Sells

The facts make the latest FDA and FTC consumer warnings about fraudulent H1N1 flu products on the market attempting to take advantage of people’s fears even more tragic.

Since May, when a H1N1 pandemic was declared, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have issued consumer warnings about fraudulent products being marketed claiming to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure H1N1 virus that are not approved, cleared or authorized by the FDA.

Yesterday, the FTC announced that CVS Pharmacy, Inc. has agreed to stop making false and deceptive advertising claims that its AirShield supplement boosts the immune system and can prevent colds and flu and to pay nearly $2.8 million.

On Monday, the FDA issued its latest list of 133 H1N1 products believed to be fraudulent and of criminal activity associated with the swine flu virus The list of fraudulent products include air purifying systems, body washes and shampoos, protective devices, masks and gloves, hand sanitizers and gels, inhaler products, herbal flu remedies, sprays, supplements and teas, and H1N1 tests.

Rather than let fears get the better of us and spend gobs of money and believe that spurious products are keeping us safe, the most effective thing we can all do to help protect from getting sick is use plain old-fashioned common sense and soap and water. Wash our hands. Not nearly as glamorous, but a whole lot more effective.

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