The coming plague

I was watching Sunrise this morning and they referred to a speech made by the Australian federal health minister Tony Abbott about the federal government’s preparations for a potential influenza pandemic.

The speach itself makes a really interesting read, but the bit I found most curious was the minister’s prediction of the impact of a pandemic:

“A Commonwealth Government report published last year estimated that a major flu pandemic could lead to 2.6 million Australians seeking medical attention, 58,000 hospitalisations and 13,000 deaths.”

When you consider that the 1918 spanish flu pandemic infected at least 25% of people within the USA, and had a 2.5% mortality rate, these numbers seem a little low. (Admittedly any new pandemic probably won’t be as virulent as the 1918 one, but it does provides us with an upper limit for how virulent we know any new flu strain reasonably could be).

Doing the rough math and applying it to today’s Australian population you get something like 5 million infected (25% of 20 million), with something like 125,000 dying. This is a bit more than the government estimates (although of course I don’t know the method that they used to reach their figures).

Addendum: I have subsequently found the above quoted report, and so when I get around to reading it I can tell you what it says about their method of estimation…

These numbers would of course be influenced both positively and negatively by factors that are present in modern society which were not present in 1918, such as:

  • Rapid mass transit (eg. air travel), which would (initially at least) speed the spread of the virus around the coutry until the authorities realised what was going on and imposed travel restrictions
  • Better health care, which may initially be able to keep more people alive through things like better rehydration for the mildly affected and mechanical ventilation for those more severely affected, however this benefit would be offset by the fact that in all likelihood the health care system would pretty rapidly collapse under the weight of the millions of people demanding assessment or requiring treatment.
  • Today’s national and international public health infrastructure would speed the identification of the emerging pandemic, and improve the information dissemination between governments and health care organisations regarding diagnostic and treatment options relating to any new flu strain.
  • Poorer government control over information dissemination through avenues such as the internet would mean that unlike in 1918 where many countries implemented reporting restrictions on the media in relation to the pandemic, information would flow more freely, and much of it may be innaccurate or outright sensationalised, and this may lead to generalised panic spreading rapidly among the ill-informed population, further disrupting the very infrastructure required to contain the outbreak.

Of course what would actually happen is very hard to reliably predict, but it’s interesting to have a think about it anyway.