It's a good headline but just how risky is the current position? What are the chances that we might be standing at the brink of a flu pandemic that might kill millions worldwide?
First of all we must factor in that there is very strong evidence that regular and sometimes deadly flu pandemics have occurred in the past. Some of them within living memory. We have had an unusually long period without a pandemic happening so the odds are clearly shortening on another pandemic at some point in the not too far future. But is that future upon us?
Certainly the Mexican Swine flue virus would appear to have an unusual genetic mix. There were suggestions that this strain had different genetic material some typical of South American swine flu and some from North America. It was suggested that this was an unusual risk.
With my paranoid hat on I wondered if this had been a created strain that someone had released. An unlikely conspiracy I think, but who knows.
More likely there has been animal movement between North and South and different strains have found themselves in the same animal at some point and have exchanged genetic material. Evolution in action can be scary.
The virus has spread rapidly from its initial base camp in Mexico. It looks as though it has been there for between four to six weeks. One of the fortunate things is that the outbreak didn't occur at the height of the tourist season. That could have spread very large numbers of infected people all around the world. The pace at which infections would spread in our populations would have been all the faster.
Even so there have been a large number of people showing possible signs in other countries. Whatever happens it looks like this strain is with us for some time to come.
On the plus side there have , so far been no deaths anywhere but Mexico. This is interesting as is the percentage of deaths among the infected.
Figures i saw recently , if my memory is correct showed there had been around 140 plus deaths and around 1600 reported as infected. That's a death rate of 8.75%. The infections and deaths in Mexico are likely to have been among people who were poorer, less well nourished. The odds are that in a Western setting, with good health care systems the death rate will be lower. But how much lower?
There are around 20 reported case in the UK I believe. With a death rate at 5% we would be likely to see the first fatality over here as the next batch of cases are identified.
But all the reports so far are that people who have the infection have not been gravely ill. If this remains true over the coming days then the virus may be attenuating as it is passes from host to host or there may be some other factor at play ( climate, diet, population health or genetic makeup).
So what does this all mean for the chances of a Flu Pandemic?
My money at the moment would be on this infection continuing to spread through our populations. It's probably now at the point that this cannot be prevented. It's happening now. The evidence at present points towards the virus having some deadly effects but less so either as it spreads or in healthier populations. The infection rate will likely continue to build in the next few weeks. I wonder if it might hang around during the summer months here then really take off this autumn or winter.
So I think this one will spread and we will have deaths. But I don't think this is the really big one like the 1918 Spanish Flu. I hope I'm right.