Not Autumn. Not the football season.
I'm not talking about the Christmas season either, which is however starting earlier and earlier every year.
What season you ask? Why it's flu season!
And it may not be your run-of-the-mill flu season. Scientists are tracking H5N1, known as the avian flu, which doomsayers predict could make the Spanish flu of 1918 look like a case of the sniffles. OK, maybe not. In fact researchers are so interested in the similarities between the two that they have resurrected the Spanish flu
virus in order to study it.
Following a discussion with merseydotes
, I started digging around online and came across a site at the CDC which monitors data from a number of sources nation- and world-wide, including reports from the U.S. Influenza Sentinel Providers Surveillance Network
"Each week, approximately 1,000 health-care providers around the country report the total number of patients seen and the number of those patients with influenza-like illness ( ILI ) by age group. For this system, ILI is defined as fever (temperature of >100°F) plus either a cough or a sore throat
From this, the CDC calculated the ILI% (number of patients diagnosed with ILI, as a percentage of all patients seen). This chart track the ILI% over the past six flu seasons, with each data point one week for the season starting in October and ending in May. Its kind of like a fiscal year, so take note that January of the new year is at week 14.
As the chart shows (from the data I imported into MS Excel), the flu season peaked early during the 99-00 and 03-04 seasons. Conversely, the last flu season was more of a slow build, peaking in late February.
Arbitrarily establishing 3% as a threshold for "peak season", I count that the peak seasons lasting seven week in three of the seasons, six weeks in two of the seasons, and just three weeks in one season (02-03).
So when the normal flu season kicks in, you can expect about six weeks of generally increased misery, peaking around week 3 or 4. 2003-2004 was weird in that it shot up, hovered at the peak for three weeks, than plummeted.
They also track the ILI% by region of the country. You can see a map of the regions here
During the last flu season, the Pacific and Mid-Atlantic regions seemed to be leading indicators of the overall trend, while the West South Central region got hammered. The best places to hang out during flu season, at least according to the most recent numbers, seems to be New England or the Mountain states.
So what do we gather from this in relation to the avian flu. Not being a pathologist nor anyone who has any training in public health issues
(an important caveat), my layman's reading of this is that one should watch Los Angeles and New York for initial outbreaks.
If the avian flu hits there first, take that well-deserved 6-week vacation to Utah or Maine that you've been dreaming about.
The U.S. Government has a plan
, but frankly there is little to do right now. An experimental vaccine has been fast-tracked, but a stockpile won't be ready for a while. There are three approved anti-viral drugs in the government's stockpile, but they will be used to limit the spread of the virus.
Assuming a 15% of the population (almost 45 million) gets the avian flu, the CDC estimates a range of 87,000 fatalities at the low end to 207,000 at the high end. Put that in the perspective, of course, that the regular old flu kills about 36,000 each year alone. Of course, while it is usually the youngest and older of the population that suffer the highest fatalities, the experience with the Spanish flu of 1918 was that young adults were especially at risk.
So a pandemic flu would be 2.4 to 5.75 times as fatal as the regular flu, and possibly reaching into demographics that normally are not hit as hard. The good news is that human-to-human transmission does not seem to be possible right now (Overall, H5N1 has achieved 4 of the 8 mutations that Spanish flu needed in order to become a monster), and that there is an extensive tracking and warning system in place.