As summer ends, students return to school, and flu-season appears on the horizon, the drumbeat of panic about Swine flu is starting to increase again.  Yesterday (August 25, 2009), the CNN website had a headline that read: “Swine flu could cause up to 90,000 U.S. deaths”.  On the same day, the Los Angeles Times ran a story that reported that 20% to 40% of the US population could get Swine flu this year, and up to 2 million Americans could be hospitalized as a result.

Both of these reports were based on a report released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.  Unfortunately, many people only read the headlines, and fail to take note of the details reported further into the articles, and deeper in the actual report of the President’s Council.  The details paint a far more nuanced picture of the threat.  For example:

  • During a “normal” flu season, 35,000 – 40,000 Americans die from the flu.
  • Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, who helped to craft the report put out by the President’s Council, noted that the morbidity figures “are not a prediction, but a possibility”.
  • Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that the Swine flu could actually be milder than the average flu seen in most years.
  • There is nothing to indicate that the Swine flu virus (H1N1) is more severe than the flu virus seen in most years – it is just that mutations in the virus have resulted in a lowered immunity in the population.  Translation:  more people may get sick, but the sickness does not appear to be worse than the average flu.

It is also worth noting that just two days ago, the Los Angeles Times also reported that misuse of anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu amd Relenza  may actually lead to the development of drug-resistant strains of the virus for Swine flu.  In other words, if people start to panic and take Tamiflu or Relenza even though they are not sick with Swine flu, they could inadvertently make the virus worse for everybody.  In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised that those with only mild or moderate cases of Swine flu should not take these medications.

As in my prior post on Swine flu (June 23, 2009), I want to emphasize that I am not diminishing the importance of preparing for this particular flu. I myself may get vaccinated (assuming the vaccine is ready and available).  Nor do I want to diminish the suffering, including deaths, that have occurred and will continue to occur because of this illness.  I only want to call attention to the realities of the situation, and put things into perspective.  Thus far, 1,490 people have died in the entire world from the Swine flu since the virus appeared earlier this year. During that same period of time, many more people have died as a result of auto accidents, cancer, heart disease, famine, etc.

Yes, we need to take the Swine flu seriously, and we need to prepare for it diligently.  But we do not need to assume that tens of thousands of otherwise healthy people are automatically going to die.  So for those with OCD and Hypochondria, challenging the accuracy of your distorted thoughts about the likelihood of getting and dying from Swine flu will likely bring you more peace than taking medications you don’t need or visiting doctors due to minor flu or cold symptoms.

•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions.  In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment.  To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.