Swine flu mystery

The big problem with analysing the swine flu outbreak is that the medical community does not appear to have a complete gasp on the extent and effect of the infection.


Swine flu continued to dominate the news and minds of much of the world in the past two days. It is clear that the virus is spreading far and fast, but it remains very unclear how lethal this disease will be.

The core problem that Stratfor has uncovered is that the data thus far could be completely unreliable. Rather than the natural issues with data that arise at ground zero of an epidemic, it seems that much of the testing used to identify the presence of the specific new A(H1N1) strain generated many false positives. More reliable equipment – the quantities of which are limited – is being made more available. In essence, the testing program is going back to the beginning. Until the re-testing is completed, it is impossible to say how lethal the new virus strain is.

Consequently, right now the medical community does not appear to have a complete grasp on the extent and effect of the infection. All reported numbers at this point should be considered unreliable, and Stratfor considers it imperative to wait for the United States to process its own data rather than jump to conclusions.

Here are the facts that are undisputed and not reliant upon the testing that has been completed to this point:

– The United States reports an average of 36,000 deaths per year from various influenza strains, but so far no deaths of US citizens have been publicly confirmed as a result of swine flu. Time will tell if the new strain proves to be even as deadly as its seasonal brethren.

– Flu strains are very easily transmitted, and any strain is completely uncontainable. The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level to five, the second-highest alert level. It is important to note that this alert level reflects the spread of the disease – specifically denoting that the disease has reached the level of sustained human-to-human transmission capable of infecting populations that are not geographically connected – and is not an estimation of the likelihood of fatalities.

– Despite the opacity of the data, it is clear that dozens of patients in Mexico have died after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The question remains whether there will be significant numbers of fatalities outside of Mexico. At this point, it is possible that deaths in the United States have been under-reported because US doctors passed the deaths off as a result of the regular seasonal flu, or that the flu has now been in the country long enough to start causing serious complications among patients.

– It is also clear that the U.S. government is taking this seriously. Though the message from the White House has been calm, a statement from US Vice President Joseph Biden that he would advise anyone suffering from flu-like symptoms to avoid crowded public places – specifically public transportation and airplanes – indicates the kind of debate raging in Washington about how strong of a warning to issue to Americans.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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