swine-fluThe swine flu pandemic will soon kill us all. It’s already taken out 20 people, or 0.000000003% of the global population! In the words of South Park, soon there will be only 99.999% of us left!

Okay, maybe that isn’t so bad. But swine flu COULD kill us all, which is a good reason to panic and devote hours upon hours of cable news network time to the story. As opposed to, say, environmental destruction or genocide, which is currently killing hundreds of thousands. Now folks are running out to buy of surgical masks by the boatload, despite scientists’ pesky insistance that it won’t stop you from catching the flu.

Okay, so I’m skeptical. Anyone who isn’t is probably paranoid, given the gigantic scares of SARS of avian flu in recent years. But a giant flu pandemic could get pretty bad, so I’d like to take this opportunity to point out how I CALLED it. A few months back I was doing debate research and came across a staggeringly scary fact: we can’t do jack to stop the flu. Consider the following:

  • Vaccines are really, really ineffective because influenza mutates so quickly. Scientists have to guess which strain will break out in order to target their vaccines. In 2008, the flu vaccine was only 44% effective.
  • In February of 2008, flu was responsible for almost 10% of all deaths in the United States.
  • Empirically, flu pandemics pop up every 30 years or so. Spanish flu of 1918-1919, an outbreak in 1957-58, and another in 1968-69 all fit the curve. By that measure, we’re overdue.
  • Flu can kill a lot of people–the 1918 outbreak killed between 50 and 100 million, or 2.5% of the global population.

So why are we so helpless at the hands of this little bug? The first problem is that it mutates fast, but the second is that we don’t look for it in the right places. Evidence shows that new strains of the flu tend to pop up in Southeast Asia, but the WHO headquarters its flu research centers in Japan, the UK, Australia, and the United States. If they were to focus more research in Cambodia or Laos, the WHO would have a big headstart on vaccines and could probably guess the right strain to prepare for. Maybe one day…

But for now, we’re all stuck breathing through flimsy surgical masks and running away from sneezing toddlers. My guess is that this strain will join SARS and bird flu in the hall of overhyped dread diseases. But you never know.