The H1N1 Scare: A History Lesson

I recall quite clearly a conversation I had with a friend of mine about vaccines. He brought up a classic anti-vaccine canard – the H1N1 Swine Flu scare. Specifically, he asked why major medical centers had so hyped up the disease, and why people had pushed so hard for a vaccine when in fact it wasn’t all that bad. The implication is, of course, that it was a conspiracy to sell a vaccine that wasn’t really needed. After all, why were they so afraid of a strain of the flu which, in the end, only ended up killing a few thousand people (18,500, although the actual number may have been 15 times as much)? Hey, there were only 3,433 deaths confirmed in the USA. That’s not that bad, right?

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But even leaving the fact aside that the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 ended up being a hell of a lot more deadly than most Antivaccers like to pretend, there’s another reason why scientists panicked somewhat about it. You see, this wasn’t the first time we’d run into a strain of H1N1. It wasn’t the first time H1N1 was a pandemic. There was a time before where H1N1 was pandemic. 1918. Back then, we knew it as “Spanish flu”, and it killed off about 10%-20% of those infected. That’s pretty bad, right? Even if a disease is relatively rare, if you can innoculate against it and it has a mortality rate of 20%, then it’s usually a pretty damn good idea to get vaccinated, because the alternative is potentially dying horribly if you come into contact with it. That was the old strain of H1N1, Spanish Flu. But was it rare? Uh… No. I mean, depending on what you call “rare”… I mean, if one in four people have something, is it rare? It infected 500 million people. Think about those numbers for a moment. Let ’em rattle around in your head for a few minutes. Now add another number: “1.8 billion”. That was the approximate number of humans alive in 1918.

For those of you who are a little slow (or a little antivaccine), let me break it down for you. The last time we, as a species, encountered H1N1 Influenza, it killed off somewhere between 3% and 6% of the global population. 50-100 million people. If you lived back then, chances are you knew someone who died of H1N1. If H1N1 had been a person, Hitler and Stalin’s massacres would have been historical footnotes.

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Black Death figures based on 1300s, fairly rough estimate. Still, the point is fucking made!

So no, it’s not scientists paying lip service to corporations. There was no ulterior motive behind pushing the vaccine for H1N1 so hard. The reason it was pushed so hard, and the reason why the scientific community collectively shat itself upon realizing what it was dealing with, was because the last time it showed up, it killed off somewhere between the population of South Korea and the population of the Phillipines. There’s no fucking conspiracy here. A deadly pandemic came back after killing off one in 20 people last time it was around, a vaccine was pushed hard for it, and then we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when it didn’t end up leaving us with so many corpses that we would need mass graves.

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