The media has been hyper-focused this weekend on the news that more than 1,000 people in Mexico have become infected with Swine flu, also known as Influenza A H1N1. Nearly 90 people have died from the outbreak. The strain appears to have spread to several countries including the United States. One of the most notable pieces of information about this outbreak is that in the US and Canada the cases have been described as "mild."
One of the first things that accompany news of dangerous flu viruses is an economic evaluation of the effects of a pandemic. In a recent article, Reuters pointed out in 2008 that the IMF said a flu pandemic could cost $3 trillion and cause a 5% drop in global GDP. In other words, it would almost certainly turn the current deep recession into a worldwide depression.
Over the last decade, as similar concerns have arisen about avian flu spreading from Asia to the rest of the world, the fears have not been justified. The last pandemic was known as the Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968 and 1969. The deaths from the Hong Kong flu were estimated to be between 750,000 and one million people, including nearly 34,000 in the US.
Since that pandemic more than 40 years ago, there have been no major events involving the global spread of lethal flu infections. There have been cases of dangerous avian flu outbreaks in Asia for a decade which has caused the deaths of a small number of people. Since these flu infections have not spread globally warnings and concerns about pandemics have not been much seen in the media.
At the start of this weekend, however, the media has been very involved in transmitting the latest information from all the public health organizations and specialists in disease tracking. "We are very, very concerned," World Health Organization spokesman Thomas Abraham said. "We have what appears to be a novel virus and it has spread from human to human … It's all hands on deck at the moment."
Two critical factors should prevent the current outbreak from spreading much further. The first is the sophisticated monitoring systems set up by the CDC in the United States, similar authorities in other countries, and the WHO on a global basis. The SARS outbreak in 2002 ended up killing less than 800 people, in part because of a near shutdown of world travel and minute-by-minute tracking of the progress of the disease around the world.
Secondly, there are several theories about why flu viruses do not spread with the rapidity and scale that they once did. One is that flu vaccines diminish the spread of the disease in general by cutting down on the spread of specific strains. This even extends to the vaccinations of animals that are the primary carriers of the infectious viruses. In addition, the CDC said that two major flu drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, appear likely to diminish the severity of symptoms for the new strain, if taken in the first 48 hours of this Swine flu infection. That may be one of the reasons that public health officials, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists have indicated that people should not be overly concerned. One expert told NPR, "We've seen swine influenza in humans over the past several years, and in most cases, it's come from direct pig contact. This seems to be different," said Dr. Arnold Monto, from the University of Michigan. "I think we need to be careful and not apprehensive, but certainly paying attention to new developments as they proceed."
The odds that tens of thousands of people will die from the flu are low. Advances in medicine and public health policy have made a big difference in the ability to monitor emerging serious illnesses. The fact that the new disease seems not to be terribly virulent outside of Mexico is another factor that supports the opinion that this will not be a major epidemic.
However, in the minds of some analysts, the world can still look forward to trillions of dollars in financial losses and an economic depression.
Last month, the news was filled with headlines about a large asteroid which might hit the Earth in 2036. Apophis, as it is called, is 390 meters wide. If it strikes the planet, it would release more than 100,000 times the energy than that of the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. The asteroid was a big story, but buried deep in the press reports about it was the fact that the odds of a collision are 1 in 5,500 based on current information.
It would not be a good idea to take the $3 trillion in upcoming losses from the new "pandemic" to the bank.