It's been quite a while since I wrote anything about the flu, but I suppose I should start keeping track of interesting new developments.
We should consider the clock started on vaccine development. Various reports suggest that Baxter is already at work at the request of the Mexican government. News outlets are being very careless, throwing around phrases like "vaccines are at least six months away", when it would surprise me if anything became available in less than nine months. I expect it to be more like 12-18 months, but I really, truly, hope I am wrong about this. All of a sudden we are doing a real-world test of our preparedness.
There is excellent coverage, as usual, over at EffectMeasure. Other reporting is sort of spotty. I keep seeing stories (Wired, CNN, even the NYT) reporting that the CDC says vomiting and diarrhea are symptoms of the flu, when what the CDC says is that "some people report" those symptoms for the flu. Usually GI tract symptoms like that are due to noroviruses (think cruise ships), not influenza viruses. But I suppose we could be seeing something new.
I just heard a report from the BBC suggesting that Mexico thinks as many as 2000 people have been infected, with Mexico's health minister putting the death toll at 149. That would put the fatality rate at 7.5%, which would be extremely high for the flu. It is too early to say whether those numbers are realistic or not, especially since Mexico will have difficulty making positive molecular diagnoses. I would expect a retrospective analysis of this outbreak to determine that many, many more people have been exposed and infected than presently reported. It is certainly confusing why all the deaths have thus far been confined to Mexico.
It seems that cases are already spread across the world. Here is a Google Maps version of suspected and confirmed cases, which looks to be maintained by Henry Niman. Good show Dr. Niman, even though I haven't always seen eye to eye with you on your ideas about the flu and SARS. Niman seems to be maintaining a bunch of other such maps, which are worth checking out, including H5N1 in Egypt and ... "SARS 2009" -- WTF!!!
Back to H1N1: According to this ProMED summary, Israel is taking the most important step it can in preparing:
Israel renames unkosher swine flu.
Israel's health minister updates a nervous public about the swine flu
epidemic - and starts by renaming it Mexican flu.
Perhaps my slight turn to appreciating black humor here is that I just don't see that things have improved very much since 2005. In mid-February of this year, I sat around a table in DC with a bunch of people who had been called together to discuss biopreparedness, whether for natural or artificial threats. The person convening the meeting suggested that basically everyone who deeply cared about the issue in DC was in the room, and it was a disturbingly small group.
Also disturbing was what those people reported about their experiences in trying to prepare the US for the inevitable appearance of biothreats. The news wasn't encouraging. Another anecdote for context -- in 2005 I had a conversation with the head of Asian operations for one of the two remaining international express shipping companies. At that time, his company hadn't given much thought to the flu -- this was before all the hullaballoo -- and he suggested should H5N1 become a problem that the company would simply stop flying. An executive from a major disposable syringe manufacturer then suggested there would be no way to keep up with demand if that shipping stopped. I went on to write here, and elsewhere, about what might happen to not just our economy, but also our R&D efforts, if plastic labware and rubber gloves made in Asia were stuck there. I can report that, as of February this year, there are at least a few stockpiles of critical supplies here in the States, but that the academics, state, and federal officials around that table in DC were far less than sanguine about our state of preparedness. One professor, who was running an ongoing assessment of his state's preparedness, suggested that they were still having trouble getting the basic data they needed on the available stock of consumables in hospitals.
I have been concentrating on other topics for the last eighteen months or so, and so I raised my hand to express my incredulous dismay that things haven't improved in 4 years. That generated an interesting response. About half the room assured me it was okay, and the other half assured me my dismay was entirely warranted. Great.
Thus my slightly foul mood as a new potential threat is rapidly finding its way around the globe. That and the fact that I am about to climb into an airplane bound for the UK -- eight hours in a closed environment with hundreds of international travelers at the beginning of a potential epidemic. Oh, joy.
Where's my Tamiflu?