Flu Epidemics Evolve Away From Being Very Deadly – Except When They Don’t

Matt Ridley on how flu epidemics evolve away from being very deadly « Samizdata

If this is so, why then did H1N1 flu kill perhaps fifty million people in 1918? Ewald and others think the explanation lies in the trenches of the First World War. So many wounded soldiers, in such crowded conditions, provided a habitat ideally suited to more virulent behaviour by the virus: people could pass on the virus while dying. Today you are far more likely to get the flu from a person who is well enough to go to work than one who is ill enough to stay at home.

Of course the pessimists could be right, in this or that particular instance. And of course we here are very pessimistic about the future course of the world’s current financial crisis. That is surely going to get far worse before it gets much better. I recall reporting here on a debate on that subject, where the other side was taking it for granted that the crisis that had just happened was now over and done with, and the only question concerned how best to “manage the recovery”. We here regard the people who talked like that, then, as the Chicken Little Panglossian tendency.

And Matt Ridley himself is careful to include doubts about future flu outbreaks maybe not all being so un-apocalypctic. “Flu may yet mount a serious epidemic in some form.”

Nevertheless, interesting. And it will be interesting to see how this latest flu flare-up plays out.

I find Ewald’s explanation for the deadliness of the 1918 flu quite unpersuasive – unless you think fifty million people died because they were either soldiers fighting in trenches, or were citizens in close contact with them. 675,000 died in the United States, most of whom never came within 3000 miles of trench warfare.  The same is true for tens of millions who perished in other parts of the world.

As for the potential lethality of future pandemics, this theory leaves out a significant qualifier:  Diseases specifically created to wreak havoc by future “virus writers” who work with real viruses.

Posted in Disease permalink

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.

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