Monday, April 27, 2009

Shouting fire in a crowded theatre

There are two likely interpretations on the current swine flu outbreak.

1) It an event with high risks, but currently the virus is only causing deaths in Mexico ( and those reports are from the city ). The Authorities are nervous in case theirs a mutation to something more troublesome ( and as the number of human hosts sky rockets the chances of that increase dramatically ). Whilst the death toll of over 100 looks big, its in a city of 20 million people. There will have been a considerable number of other deaths.

Also flights from Mexico haven't been cancelled, which surely would be the case if a high mortality Pandemic was expected. ( Whilst the experts who say the flu can't be contained are no doubt right, it can be delayed giving time for a vaccine to be developed ).

The US has not taken measures that would be required if they saw a clear threat ( schools shut etc ). Update: This is starting to happen and the US has released 25% of its federal reserves of anti-Flu drugs to areas that are likely to be affected.

I wonder if the famous poor air quality in Mexico city has contributed to the deaths. This flu is supposed to be a respiratory disease. Also I wonder if smoking isn't far more common in Mexico?

Hence vigilant but relaxed is the correct outlook.

2) Things are far worse than is being reported. The BBC seems to have a contact in a Mexican hospital who is saying this. Deaths are being hidden as the authorities wish to avoid panic.

Personally I think this is far less likely, though it would be understandable. Its hard to keep a lid on things in the Internet world, I would have thought the BBC should get more sources for their story.

If this is true the lid won't be able to be kept on events for more than a few days, which will then be followed by chaos.

The argument against free speech here is the right to call fire in a crowded theatre case. I think this is mistaken, and trust would be one of the key factors in allowing any government to handle such an epidemic. That trust has to be earned and maintained. If people think they are being routinely lied to then mass panic will be uncontainable. It would be a very bad mistake.

Right now my strong balance of opinion is with 1). Update I'm now leaning more towards 2 based on current information.

Update: Google map of reported cases here - note cases and potential cases in Spain and UK.

This subject has just been covered in some detail on R4's news at one. It makes sobering listening.

Questions are now being asked about why the picture from Mexico is so confused.

Thinking further the fatalities in Mexico rather than the US may be a function of the number of cases. It appears the virus is far more widely present in Mexico than the recorded cases suggest, and hence a low mortality rate would still yield the headline figure of deaths we've seen, but not int he US ( with far fewer current cases ) - and be the same virus.

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