City of Brass

City of Brass

WHO has the swine flu fever?

Well, I am back from Oahu and find that in my absence, the world has returned to the brink of collapse, this time not from wayward financial systems or legions of mole men, but the devastating specter of the Swine Flu.

What is swine flu? It appears to be a variant of influenza that originates in swine, originating in Mexico.  While there’s not much evidence yet as to how contagious the swine flu virus may be between humans, the swine flu meme, however, has already infected twitter and the political blogsphere.


But how seriously do the experts take it? Consider the latest report from the WaPo, breathlessly titled, “WHO Raises Global Threat Level As Reports of Swine Flu Increase.” Reading this, you learn that the World Health Organization (WHO) has “raised its pandemic threat level from 3 to 4, two levels below a full-scale pandemic” and that cases of swine flu have spread to Israel and New Zealand. However, digging a bit deeper into the article beyond the lede, we find:

At the epicenter of the outbreak, in Mexico, the situation continued to deteriorate. Although the number of confirmed deaths remained at 20, the suspected death toll rose to 149, and at least 1,995 people had been hospitalized with pneumonia. The news prompted officials to shut down schools nationwide. The capital, Mexico City, where most of the cases have been reported, had already been brought to a virtual standstill by measures intended to contain the outbreak.


New Zealand’s health ministry said today that three people who tested positive for the virus had been part of a school group that recently visited Mexico,. Reuters reported. Officials told the news service that they were awaiting test results for the other eight people in the group but expected them to test positive as well.

The 26-year-old man found to be suffering from the virus in Israel also had just returned from Mexico, officials said. Matilda Schwartz, spokeswoman for Laniado Hospital in Netanya, said the patient remained in isolation. She said he was in good condition and improving. A second person remains under observation in a hospital in the town of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, officials said. U.S. and state health officials, meanwhile, said yesterday that the number of confirmed cases had more than doubled to 45 and recommended that Americans put off unnecessary travel to Mexico. “This is out of an abundance of caution,” said Richard E. Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.


“We want to be aggressive and take bold action to minimize the impact on people’s health from this infection,” Besser said during a briefing with reporters.

Most of the new U.S. cases were tied to an outbreak at a Catholic high school in New York, where more than 100 students got sick last week after several returned from a spring break trip to Mexico. Eight students were confirmed to have swine flu on Sunday, and at least 20 more were determined Monday to have the virus as well, New York officials said. The new cases are the result of additional testing and not a sign that the infection is still spreading there, Besser said. He added that all the cases were mild, except for one that required hospitalization, and that all the students had recovered.


So, this deadly killer hasn’t actually killed anyone abroad, and the deaths in mexico have been contained. The virus does not appear to be spreading and is pretty straightforward to treat.

The simple truth is that swine flu is like any other flu – the best defense against it is to wash your hands, especially before eating and drinking. Especially in Mexico, but that’s just common sense. Of course, it helps to have religious restrictions against pork in times like this (though that guy in Israel should probably feel a bit ashamed of himself). Christians, meanwhile, are due a gigantic I Told You So from pastor Joel Osteen.

(UPDATE – I was kidding above. Swine flu is like any other flu – it’s a virus, contagious like any other flu. That’s why washing your hands and covering your sneezes is a good way to stop transmission).


Incidentally, if all of this seems familiar, it’s because we went through this same routine back in the avian flu days. The inestimable Jon Stewart nicely skewered that kabob back in the day:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Health Scare – Avian Flu
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Sure, thus far there’s a worse risk of being struck by lightning than catching swine flu, but it should also be noted that the low risk to the general population so far is entirely due to the proactive measures being taken by the public health organizations. It’s easy to poke fun at the government for over-reacting, but just like volcano monitoring, pandemics are things you only need to fail to prepare for once to invite genuine catastrophe. 

And since I’m taking a turn from snark to serious here, let’s note that avian flu did actually reach a 60% human mortality rate. That was pretty serious; and swine flu is troubling because it has the same characteristics as the 1918 pandemic which was serious business. 
Related and highly recommended: interview this morning of Dr. Dennis Maki, senior epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, by Joy Cardin on WPR.
UPDATE: More on the validity of the government response, and some silliness conspiracy theories.
  • Muzamil

    um, i’m pretty sure you don’t get swine flu by eating pork, just like you don’t get bird flu from eating chicken. its airborne, so you get it the same way you can get the regular flu. granted, there may be too much hysteria over, but who knows, a pandemic can happen unless we keep it contained. but really, i don’t think religious restrictions could have prevented this.

  • Mrs. du Toit

    “To get it, you need to have actually eaten the flesh of pigs.”
    Wrong. It isn’t spread by eating pork (the virus would be killed in cooking). This virus mutated (as they do) and was contracted initially from being around the animals. Then it mutated to be spread by airborne methods from human to human. If we killed all the pigs in the world, the virus would still exist. The countries that have banned the import of Mexican pork (dead flesh, not live animals) did so out of stupidity.

  • Maureen

    What in the world are you talking about? Swine flu isn’t trichinosis. You don’t catch it by eating pigs! You catch it by breathing near infected pigs, or possibly by letting pigs slobber over you and then not washing your hands. Don’t hang out with pigs or infected people, and you’ve got no problem.
    From the US Center for Disease Control:
    “How does swine flu spread?
    “Influenza viruses can be directly transmitted from pigs to people and from people to pigs. Human infection with flu viruses from pigs are most likely to occur when people are in close proximity to infected pigs, such as in pig barns and livestock exhibits housing pigs at fairs. Human-to-human transmission of swine flu can also occur. This is thought to occur in the same way as seasonal flu occurs in people, which is mainly person-to-person transmission through coughing or sneezing of people infected with the influenza virus. People may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.”
    “Can people catch swine flu from eating pork?
    “No. Swine influenza viruses are not transmitted by food. You can not get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork and pork products is safe. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F kills the swine flu virus as it does other bacteria and viruses.”

  • MarketBlogic

    Abe Lincoln used to like to tell a story about a little boy living on a farm who was hiding in the barn and saw his big sister and the salesman taking their britches off in the hay loft. So the little boy ran and told his father, “Papa Papa come quick. They’re taking their britches off and peeing in the hay!”
    And the moral of the story is that you can have the facts right and still get the conclusion wrong.
    If you can believe the CDC, and maybe you can’t, this is a new form of Type A H1N1 virus that contains genetic sequences from both human and swine flu viruses – it does spread by human-to-human contact and (this is just my opinion based on informed guesswork) I suspect that the actual number of people who’ve been infected is in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.
    Mexico is a country of 110 million people that IN A NORMAL YEAR probably has 1,000 or so people who die of flu-related symptoms and many more per month are hospitalized with pneumonia but recover.
    There’s absolutely NOTHING seen so far in the number of confirmed deaths in Mexico (110-150) and hospitalizations in Mexico (less than 4,000) that would suggest to me that they’re having anything other than a worse than normal flu month, though I’m not even sure about THAT.
    NOTE: This is based on confirmed reported data, so if there are countless sick patients all over Mexico NOT BEING REPORTED ANYWHERE BY THE GOV’T or media then this analysis is wrong. But there’s no rumors of that either, yet.

  • Andy

    Joel Osteen clearly doesn’t understand Scripture.

  • rvastar

    […the best defense against it is to wash your hands, especially before eating and drinking. Especially in Mexico, but that’s just common sense.]
    I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but this line is especially hilarious :)

  • John

    April 28, 2009 9:26 AM
    Joel Osteen clearly doesn’t understand Scripture.”
    Aziz clearly doesn’t understand the etiology of influenza.
    Eating pork gives you the flu?
    What a bigoted, “my imaginary friends’ dietary restrictions make me safe,” attitude!

  • Juan Gonzalez

    There’s zero cases thus far of someone who has been infected by swine flu by someone else, so there’s no evidence at all of how contagious the swine flu virus may be.
    Most of the new U.S. cases were tied to an outbreak at a Catholic high school in New York, where more than 100 students got sick last week after several returned from a spring break trip to Mexico.

    Didn’t that seem a little odd as you wrote your article? A few kids visit Mexico and get the swine flu, return to their class and amazingly the number of sick jumps to 100? Did the returning kids force their classmates to eat pork from Mexico or something?
    Come on now, if you want to extol the virtues of a pork-free diet, this probably wasn’t the best way to do it.

  • PJ

    I’m assuming the part having to eat swine to get swine flu was in jest, since later he clarifies. Just to be clear, swine flu is just like any other kind of flu virus. It’s usually spread by airborne particles. from coughing or sneezing.

  • Aziz Poonawalla

    I was kidding.

  • Aziz Poonawalla

    Hmm. you are right. I need to update the post (and clarify my snark about eating pork)

  • Brian Macker

    We don’t believe you that it was snark. You said in the very article that it wasn’t snark when you wrote, “And since I’m taking a turn from snark to serious here”.
    You also linked to a prior article in which you entirely and seriously recommended a speech by an ignorant fundamentalist Christian full of similar idiotic claims. Claims like because pigs eat filthy things that it must be bad for you to eat them. He argues that shrimp is bad too because “They live at the bottom of the water and eat waste”.
    Pastor Osteen makes the same EXACT stupid claims about pigs and disease that you are making here when he says, “A pig will eat other sick and infected animals”.
    He also goes on make scientifically ignorant claims about the pigs digestive system. Claiming that it is short. It’s short because they are omnivores. Like that matters to whether they are edible.
    I guess you geniuses are going to stop eating your vegetables when you learn that plants live in filth, and consume manure and other fertilizers, including, oh my, pig excrement. They live in symbiosis with fungus and bacteria, which literally digest the soil with the shortest of digestive tracts all. I guess that means no yogurt either.
    This is your brain: @ This is your brain on religion: .

  • Arianna

    No the kid did not force the children to eat pork. You cannot get it from eating pork in Mexico. The people in the U.S are getting it from people in the united states that went to Mexico or New Zealand, New yourk, California, ect. The kid probaly simply coughed or sneezed or soemthing containg germs…and gave it to them…even if you breathe next to a perosn who has it you can get it. Please watch out and if you are going in town or somewhere where a mask to keep safe, and also there are over a 100 people who have it in the United States and the first person died from it in Texas, a 2 year old :( how sad…so please remember this is very dangerouse and deadly!

  • Brian Macker

    You won’t even get swine flu from pigs. It’s not spreading in pigs. Yet the ignorant Egyptians have ordered the slaughter of all pigs.

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