Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The whole country, and perhaps the whole world, is currently in the thrall of swine flu. And a consequence, a backlash, almost, is a better understanding of the regular flu.
One figure that has been quoted a lot over the past couple of days is that "the regular flu kills 36,000 people in the US a year": and the universal reaction to this seems to be "Wow! That's huge -- I didn't know it was that many".
Now, I haven't investigated the accuracy of the figure, but let's take it as accurate, and view it from two different angles. First, the figure does seem high: that seems like a huge number of people. A moderately sized small city, even. But let's turn it around: it means that each year, something like 1/10,000 of the population of the US will have a serious enough case of the flu that they die. In other words, if you live 10,000 years, then you've got a pretty good chance of living long enough to die from the flu.
Or, if the death rate each year is between 1/50 and 1/100 of the population, then the odds of dying from the flu are between 1/100 and 1/200. That seems rather better, especially when you think of the folks who you hear about having some sort of weakened system and end up dying from the flu: 1/50 sounds rather low!

My point is not that H1N1, swine flu, is not scary. Nor that we should be complacent about ordinary flu. Rather, I'd like us to calm down, think about the figures, which presented one way can be very scary, and another way can look downright benign. So let's calm down, and take appropriate precautions, and bring the world out ahead.

Yours, opposed to panic,

1 comment:

Cornish Dreamer said...

Hear hear!

There's been far too much panic caused by the media as it is.