How Severe is Influenza Season?

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Since the April outbreak of swine flu, U.S. officials have declared national health emergencies and bought 200 million vaccines.
Most experts are saying the H1N1 virus deserves this reaction. Other interpretations cast doubt on the severity.

Click play to watch the CBN News report followed by an interview with George Washington University's Dr. Lona Simonsen.  Dr. Simonsen appeared on Wednesday's "The 700 Club" with Pat Robertson to answer questions about flu outbreaks.

The national emergency approach started with an April 26 announcement from Janet Napolitano, head of Homeland Security.

"The Department of Health and Human Services will declare, today, a public health emergency in the United States," Napalitano said.

The international emergency was announced on June 11 by Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization.

"The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic," Chan said.

On Oct. 23, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation declaring swine flu a national emergency.

One White House official stated that the proclamation allowed hospitals to apply for waivers of federal rules that restrict treatment measure. Critics wondered why the effort was made prior to any need for hospitals to have flexibility.

Southern Hemisphere

Since early summer, the Southern Hemisphere has actually been through their winter flu season. Of course, that was before swine flu vaccines were even ready.

How did their flu seasons play out?

U.S. government agencies prepared a report on this very topic. "Assessment of the 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) Outbreak on Selected Countries in the Southern Hemisphere" is an analysis for the White House on what happened in five countries.

Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Uruguay were selected. The report says, "They most closely resemble the U.S. with respect to demographics and economic development."

The report paints a picture of extra hospitalizations and visits to doctors, but hardly a portrait of widespread national emergencies.

"The annual influenza season coupled with the 2009 H1N1 pandemic did not cause an undue burden on healthcare systems in any of the countries," the report stated.

U.S. Hospitals

So far, hospitals in the U.S. are coping well despite the presidential proclamation to ease bureaucratic restrictions on hospitals. They can now put up treatment tents for an onslaught of swine flu victims that may never happen.

One group of high concern for H1N1 is infants. The report found in Argentina and Chile that those most likely to be hospitalized for serious respiratory problems were children under 4 years old.

However, 70 to 80 percent of those cases were a non-influenza virus called RSV or Respiratory Syncytial Virus. There is no vaccine for RSV.

Experts say this fact highlights the variety of viruses capable of producing serious complications. In fact, medical authorities use a category called ILI, "influenza-like illness" to describe everything that is flu or similar to flu. Overall, only about 20 percent of all ILI is actually influenza.

Death in the Southern Hemisphere

Most important are the death numbers discussed in the report. In countries with relevant statistics, Argentina and New Zealand, deaths from all flu strains were 85 percent lower than the countries' average flu mortality.

The reason appears to be two-fold. This novel H1N1 strain dominated the ILI infections and was much less serious than the usual viral strains. Because of these factors, the swine flu appears to have actually saved thousands of lives.

Since Sept. 1, confirmed H1N1 flu deaths in the U.S. are over 1,000, including well over 100 children. However, flu deaths in young kids have been increasing since 2003 when they began receiving seasonal flu shots. A few experts suspect the shots have harmed the immune systems of some children.

U.S. health officials have now re-calculated flu deaths on an estimate basis. The Centers for Disease Control now says more than 4,000 have died since April. Critics say it's not right to blame all those deaths on H1N1 when the predominant killer really is pneumonia.

Barbara Loe Fisher of the private National Vaccine Information Center contends the U.S. so far has seen a Southern Hemisphere scenario.

"When the CDC says that every year annual influenza causes about 36,000 deaths -- which we know or which we feel is an overestimation -- but still even if it caused 10,000 deaths, comparatively these are very small numbers," she said.

If the swine flu vaccine is effective and the virus doesn't change, then the U.S. could face a flu season even less serious than what the Southern Hemisphere faced.

Most epidemiologists doubt this virus will mutate into the kind of killer seen in the 1918 Spanish Flu.

*Originally published November 18, 2009.

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