Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gupta proves Swine Flu is just another flu

Sanjay Gupta, CNN's Medical Reporter, announced he had swine flu while he was in Afghanistan reporting. After reading his story, he pretty much said what those who have paid attention all along have known: Swine Flu is just another flu.

Gupta said, "It was a lot like… the flu – with a different name." And that is pretty much what it is. The flu kills tens of thousands a year, generally the most vulnerable among us, the elderly and the very young. In both cases, with weak immune systems for one reason or another.

That does not mean the WHO doesn't have a reason to get worried. It means that Americans need to stay vigilant and pay attention, and if they do, it won't be anything more than another "flu".

As for the rest of the world, Americans often wonder why they are getting so worried. Americans don't understand why. The answer is simple: the things we take for granted are things the rest of the world often doesn't have.

I just got back from three weeks in the Philippines, where I spent significant time in a village. Last year, about 30 people died from diarrhea that Immodium would have cured. We brought and left some basic medicines for our family members there that included basic fever medicine, basic diarrhea medicine, basic stomach medicine, and basic allergy medicine. None of which was available in the village.

As Gupta reported, all they gave him was some Tylenol for the fever and aches, some sinus medicine, and some fluids to keep him from getting weak. We often take for granted just how good our medical system is (don't get me wrong, we need universal health care with a public option but that's another story) where we can get better health care over the counter than most of the world can get at all. Let me illustrate one more time:

My sister-in-law was having some kind of rash outbreak. It is becoming more common in the Philippines because of all of the development bringing in new chemicals in larger quantities and some are having reactions that they never had before. The doctor told her to buy and take Zyrtec essentially (the generic of it). She mistakenly bought two instead of twelve pills (the person at the counter misread the instructions and only sold them two). It just so happens that we had Claritin and Benedryl generics with us and she didn't have to take a long bus ride back to the city to get allergy medicine. Just one more example of how our over the counter system is better than what much of the world has.

For most third world countries, even if the medicine exists, it is cost prohibitive. Their rural areas are barely in the economy, money doesn't flow as people continue to live off the land for the most part, and thus, the purchase of very basic medicines is still prohibitive.

Beyond the medicines, our immune system is often stronger due to the number of things we are exposed to on a daily basis by coming across people traveling the globe in daily life. Just as significantly, our foods are often fortified with vitamins that boost our immune system, whereas their foods often just come out of the sea or are just killed and eaten (don't get me wrong, the no hormones thing does make it taste better and may be better for you), with little money for sauces, sides of vegetables and fruits, or fruit juices that boost immune systems. Their primary source of immune system booster is breast milk, but that doesn't last as a source of nutrition too late in life.

For the third world, any flu that spreads easily is a pandemic. Something that kills tens of thousands here, may well kill millions there. After all, no one dies from diarrhea in America anymore, but they die from it in the third world still. We often forget the luxuries we are afforded by virtue of the luck of being born in America or any first world nation. And it is just that, luck.

So while the swine flu is just another flu for us, realize the great pandemic concern is to both keep Americans vigilant, and to try to save the lives of millions in the third world, where most of the deaths from swine flu have occurred.

Remember, it isn't only lives of the first world that matter. People all across the globe have value too, whether they were lucky enough to be born in the first world or unlucky enough to be born in the worst circumstances of the third world.

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