The frightening prospect of flu

Flu transmission

Bird flu may get all the headlines but the number of deaths it causes each year is currently measured in hundreds. The real killer, the one that should set yer spine a-shiver, is ordinary fly which kills hundreds of thousands each year.

With winter nearly upon us up here in the northern hemisphere, the spectre that we’ll be a-shakin and a-sweatin our way through a flu pandemic in the coming months is raising its ugly head again.

So what can science tell us about the way pandemics spread? Not enough, according to Gerardo Chowell from Arizona State University in the US and his friend Hiroshi. They’ve posted a comprehensive review of epidemic science dating back to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people by some estimates. We’ve learnt an awful lot since then about the way flu spreads but the frightening thing about Gerardo’s review is how much more we need to understand.

It’s not just small things that are up in the air but sizable pieces of the jigsaw. We still don’t know some basic probabilities associated with infection. For instance, given that an individual is infected with flu, what are the chances that the disease will manifest itself clinically? And given that the disease has manifested itself clinically in an individual, what are the chances of that person dying. And if a virus can be caught from a number of diffferent host species (as it might eventually be with bird flu) what is the probability of transmission?

Without a good understanding of these kindsa factors, it’s gonna be difficult for authorities to plan an effective response to a flu pandemic.

Mah advice? Stock up on food and water.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0711.3088: Quantifying the Transmission Potential of Pandemic Influenza

3 Responses to “The frightening prospect of flu”

  1. And good advice it is too!

    Thank you for the post.

    We have today added “The frightening prospect of flu” post of your blog to the best-bird-flu-blogs section of our site.

    Thanks and please can we have more from you.

    The birdflubreakingnews team.

    http://www.birdflubreakingnews.com

  2. [...] of the physics arXiv blog makes a few comments on the slightly frightening prospect of how little we actually know about how flu spreads. On a [...]