Swine flu / H1N1 a blessing in disguise?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Swine flu has been around for about three weeks now, resulting in a total of 65 deaths so far. Because a vaccine is yet to be developed and the flu is still capable of spreading to other countries the media attention is warranted, but it's also good to keep it in context with other diseases that kill far more people per year. A video from a few days ago makes this point well:

One point I disagree with the video on is the point about media coverage, because media coverage of a new strain like this (as long as it's not too overblown - "2 BILLION MAY DIE! OMG ZOMG ZOMG" <-- that sort of thing) can also provide an opportunity to change our habits. Take a look at these two images, showing the search engine volume and news volume for the terms handwashing and hand washing:

The spike in traffic on the far right is naturally due to the swine flu outbreak, where article after article (and even Barack Obama) recommends simple measures such as frequently washing hands with soap to prevent the disease from spreading. But what's that other smaller spike in the middle? Why, it's Global Handwashing Day. Global Handwashing Day is a worldwide event that happened for the first time last year, and the reason for its creation is the following:

Hand washing with soap is the single most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrhea and acute respiratory infections (ARI), as automatic behavior performed in homes, schools, and communities worldwide. Pneumonia, a major ARI, is the number one cause of mortality among children under five years old, taking the life of an estimated 1.8 million children per year. Diarrhea and pneumonia, together account for almost 3.5 million child deaths annually. According to the official site, turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit was projected to save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter.
So it looks like the attention on handwashing produced by the new outbreak has exceeded the search volume, and has completely blown away the news volume produced by this worldwide hand washing campaign when it happened last year. But at the same time washing one's hands isn't just effective against swine flu but also against a huge number of other diseases that are responsible for millions of deaths, instead of mere dozens. So it seems that this swine flu outbreak has very nicely done the PR work accomplished by at least two Global Handwashing Days in one fell swoop, and on October 15th this year when GHD happens again the emergence of swine flu will make a very nice point to use to hammer home the importance of washing one's hands in preventing disease, as the memory will still be fresh.


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