Swine Flu Kills Texas Child, Regular Flu Kills Thousands

CNN Breaking News: “23-month-old Texas child confirmed as first U.S. swine flu death, according to Richard Besser, acting director, CDC.”

[UPDATE:  CNN now reports that, while this is the first death in the U.S., the child was a Mexican citizen brought to Houston for treatment, said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, adding she could provide no other details.]

I just received that alert, which is atop all of CNN’s pages right now, including a story from last night that puts it in perspective: “Regular flu has killed thousands since January.”

People are nervous about swine flu, but the regular flu kills 36,000 people a year in the United States.

People are nervous about swine flu, but the regular flu kills 36,000 people a year in the United States.

An outbreak of swine flu that is suspected in more than 150 deaths in Mexico and has sickened dozens of people in the United States and elsewhere has grabbed the attention of a nervous public and of medical officials worried the strain will continue to mutate and spread. Experts are nervous that, as a new strain, the swine flu will be harder to stop because there aren’t any vaccines to fight it.

But even if there are swine-flu deaths outside Mexico — and medical experts say there very well may be — the virus would have a long way to go to match the roughly 36,000 deaths that seasonal influenza causes in the United States each year.  “That happens on an annual basis,” Dr. Brian Currie said Tuesday. Currie is vice president and medical director at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York.

Since January, more than 13,000 people have died of complications from seasonal flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report on the causes of death in the nation. No fewer than 800 flu-related deaths were reported in any week between January 1 and April 18, the most recent week for which figures were available.  The report looks at deaths in the 122 largest cities in the United States.

Worldwide, the annual death toll from the flu is estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000.

That doesn’t make the death of a small child from swine flu less tragic or the spread of a new strain for which we don’t yet have a vaccine less scary.  But one doesn’t want to focus on a single tree while ignoring the forest, either.

Oh, in an unpaid service to the pork industry, it’s worth noting that you don’t catch swine flu from eating the other white meat.

For U.S. pork producers the swine flu name has hurt, forcing government officials into the position of stressing that American pork is safe to eat and that other countries should not ban imports.  Pork, soybean and corn prices have fallen in the last two days, “and if this continues, obviously you have significant potential, which is why it’s important to get this right,” [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack said.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was also talk of stripping the “swine” from swine flu, which CDC acting director Richard Besser said was leading to the misapprehension that people can catch the disease from pork. “That’s not helpful to pork producers. That’s not helpful to people who eat pork. It’s not helpful to people who are wondering, how can they get this infection,” Besser told a briefing.

Just in case you were wondering.  Somehow, though, like “overseas contingency operations,” I don’t see “H1N1 virus” catching on in the media.  Maybe the pork industry should hire Frank Luntz.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steve Plunk says:

    Wasn’t this child actually from Mexico seeking treatment in the United States?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yes. The initial report indicated otherwise and post has now been updated. Thanks.

  3. Houston says:

    The local story is that the kid came up to Brownsville with his family last week, to visit relatives. He was apparently “a bit under the weather” when they arrived. His condition worsened, and he was admitted to a local Brownsville hospital, and then urgently transferred to Houston, but by then it was too late.

    I live in southern-most Texas and commute across the border daily. There is very little concern now in northern Mexico. The vast majority of cases are in the vicinity of Mexico DF (the city) — at least for now.

  4. Gustopher says:

    It’s too soon to tell how dangerous the Swine Flu is — we know 160 have been reported dead in Mexico, and 1,600 were hospitalized, but we don’t know either of the following:

    1. How many have died and not been reported.

    2. How many have been infected.

    If we look at the 160 and 1,600 numbers, then it has a 10% fatality rate, which is really bad. But, if only 1 in 10 were sick enough to go to the hospital, we are at 1%, which is just bad.

    You shouldn’t be cavalier about it, but you shouldn’t be panicked either.