Contract staff of Port Health stand in attention before shifting duties at the Hong Kong Airport Thursday, April 30, 2009. (AP / Bobby Yip)
Dr. Neil Rau, infectious disease expert, speaks with CTV's Canada AM, Wednesday, April 29, 2009.

Dr. Neil Rau, infectious disease expert, speaks with CTV's Canada AM, Wednesday, April 29, 2009.

Seasonal flu killing more people than 'swine flu'

Updated Thu. Apr. 30 2009 2:31 PM ET

CTV.ca News Staff

The World Health Organization upped its pandemic level for the swine flu to Phase 5 on Wednesday, but a Canadian infectious disease expert charges it's only raising the "panic level" with the move.

Dr. Neil Rau says that the WHO's pandemic plan is based on the assumption that an influenza virus will act like the deadly 1918 Spanish Influenza and easily kill multiple people. But he says the swine flu is looking more and more like the more common seasonal flu.

"I don't agree with (the WHO) because I think it's a panic metre, not a pandemic metre," he told CTV Newsnet Wednesday. "We have just frightened everyone that catastrophe is imminent and yet no one is actually looking at the disease."

He says that the death of a Mexican toddler and the illness of a pregnant woman show the swine flu acting more like the regular seasonal flu "except it's out of the typical flu season."

At level five, the WHO pandemic level is only one below its peak of six, which indicates a global pandemic. Phase 5 indicates community level outbreaks in more than one country.

But Rau points out that the virus has been significantly milder in the U.S. and Canadian cases, and those cases have almost always been traced back to a trip to Mexico.

"If that flu-like illness is not deadly, I don't know what the cause for alarm is for people who are not really sickened by this virus," Rau said. "I'm really eager to know how much worse this is than seasonal flu.

"So far it's looking like it's not that serious."

The swine flu is suspected in the deaths of more than 150 Mexicans. No one has died from it elsewhere, except a young Mexican boy who was visiting the U.S.

Compared to the deaths caused by seasonal flu this year, swine flu is considerably less dangerous.

According to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly report, more than 13,000 Americans have died from seasonal flu in 2009 alone.

The worldwide total for seasonal flu related deaths is generally between 250,000 and 500,000 a year.

Rau says that there is much debate in the scientific community about if swine flu should be considered a pandemic virus or just a new virus.

He expects the WHO will increase their pandemic level to Phase 6, but cautioned people about overreacting.

Nick Bontis, a strategy expert from the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., said people are being hammered by the WHO alerts and wall-to-wall media reports -- and that it all amounts to harmful and needless fear mongering.

"Let's talk about even the word 'pandemic'. It comes from the Greek word 'pan' which means all; and 'demic' from 'demos' meaning people: (so) all people," Bontis told CTV Newsnet on Thursday.

"It literally translates to mean a bunch of people from around the world are getting the flu -- it does not mean we're all going to die soon. So I think we just have to be a little bit more respectful and prudent."

WHO spokesperson Dick Thompson said that 'pandemic' simply means a global distribution of a disease -- and that people have a tendency to misunderstand the word.

But he added that there is also the important question of severity. "How severe is that disease?" he told The Associated Press from Geneva. "And we can have very mild pandemics. But we can also have pandemics that can come in waves."

Thompson said while a first wave may be mild, and could lull people into complacency and have them thinking, 'we've seen this, it's not so difficult to deal with, it's not so scary.' And then another wave comes along. That has been a pattern. And that's something we have to keep thinking about."

Officials have begun pointing to the 1918 Spanish Flu -- a H1N1 virus believed to be of avian origin -- as an example. That flu became the worst infectious disease outbreak in known history, and it's estimated to have killed more than 50 million people around the world.


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