April 13th, 2010
Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Is it possible for a pandemic to save lives?
The short answer is that it just did. Since swine flu first burst onto the scene one year ago this month, fewer Americans appear to have died of influenza-related causes than in any recent flu season.
The pandemic flu kept at bay seasonal strains that normally kill thousands of elderly people. And it did so, somehow, while not sticking around itself. The result: a winter flu season with virtually no seasonal flu, no pandemic flu, no flu of any kind, at least not yet.
“It is very eerie,” said Gregory Storch, director of the infectious diseases division at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
But before you get all giddy with pandemic appreciation, consider the following:
No one knows why swine flu didn’t return this winter. (Handwashing and vaccination probably helped but don’t fully explain what happened.) Flus of pandemics past have always come back; it was just a question of when and how severe. And it could well be that as more months pass without any strains of flu, fewer people are developing immunity against them – and could get sicker next season.
As for the lower death toll, raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Yes, very few people died this winter, suppressing the yearlong tally. But the victims, mainly last spring and fall, were nearly all younger people with much of their lives ahead of them. In actuarial terms, this pandemic may turn out to have been more harmful than it seems.