In 2004, 727 deaths were attributed, worldwide, to acute nasopharyngitis, or the common cold. I suspect more could be attributed to a successful attempt to eradicate the common cold, as the makers of over-the-counter cold and flu remedies faced bankruptcy. There's just no incentive to find a cure for the common cold, no matter how miserable those pesky little viruses make millions of us each year. It would be devastating to the global economy.
About 36,000 people die, in the U.S., each year - from the flu. And yet, there's very little panic over it, most years. People rationalize their reasons for getting - or not getting - the vaccine:
- "I work in healthcare. I have to get it."
- "My doctor says that at my age, the flu could kill me. He said I had to get the vaccine."
- "I'm not getting vaccinated - I'm allergic to eggs!" (The vaccine is made with eggs.)
- "Who knows if this year's vaccine will protect us, anyway? It probably doesn't even contain the right flu strains."
- "I hate shots."
- "I'm terrified of needles." (This is my excuse. That, and "That sucker HURTS! Last time I got the flu vaccine, I couldn't lift my arm for a WEEK!" Double your fun: get the flu vaccine in one arm, and the pneumonia vaccine in the other - on the same day. Then walk around like a gorilla, dragging your knuckles on the ground and asking everyone to "open this" or "carry that" while you wince in pain and try not to swing your arms as you move.)
Considering that 36,000 people die of Influenza every year, that's a pretty lackadaisical attitude. My mother used to tell of the "polio scares" when she was a kid - the daily death toll announced on the radio, parboiling tomatoes and peaches (then peeling off the skin and throwing it away for good measure), not being allowed to swim in lakes and public pools, knowing kids who died or ended up confined in an iron lung for the rest of their lives. It's easy to dismiss statistics and say "only 727 people died of the common cold," or "36,000 is just a tiny fraction of the total population - most people recover just fine" but if you're one of the ones who doesn't survive it - or a close family member of one of its victims - it's still horrible and unacceptable.
But is it worth panicking? No.
Taking reasonable precautions? Absolutely. Know how to prevent swine flu and talk to your kids about good hygiene, not sharing drinks, not touching their faces, and minimizing physical contact. Stay positive and optimistic, particularly when talking to your kids. Remember that most people who catch the flu do survive and recover fairly quickly, but the misery of being sick, not to mention the personal and community cost of lost school time, lost work and wages, and lost productivity, is enough to warrant avoidance. Know when to seek emergency care for the flu, but avoid being around other sick people - in doctors' offices, emergency rooms, crowded places - if you don't need to be there. That's just common sense.
If you use Twitter or other social media outlets, avoid falling victim to hype and misinformation. For example, no, you cannot get the flu from eating pork. On the other hand, if there were less demand for bacon, there would be fewer pig farms...not a bad thing, in my opinion, having been downwind of a pig farm. But then we go back to that whole issue of real risk analysis and the economy, as well as the all-important question of "Would life be worth living if it weren't for bacon?"