During this past week, we have heard a great deal written about 4 dead people. They were Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and a non-celebrity by the name of Neda Soltan. Death came to McMahon at age 86 and likely in the form of an old friend bringing comfort and rest. Fawcett fell victim to cancer, and Jackson's death will remain in tortured dispute just as his life. Of these 4, one death was a true tragedy. That was the death of an Iranian woman protesting a vicious tyrant and marching in support of true human rights. If you happen to see a candle lit in her memory, think of what this flame stands for: a courageous voice declaring its freedom from oppression. Whatever your feelings towards these celebrities, you should recognize what holds the greatest importance for you, your parents, your children, and focus.
Several fish-wraps now report there were 500,000 cases of the Swine Flu in NYC, during May. Two months ago, I wrote that the number of affected people have been grossly under-reported. So, on the one hand it is pleasant to see my claims repeated in a wide variety of major newspapers. On the other hand, I can't stand the poor reasoning skills employed to generate these reports. If you actually bother reading the article in NYT, you will notice that their methods for confirming such claims are badly flawed. They site some survey in which New Yorkers were called and 7% reported having flu like symptoms during May. From this 7%, they arrive at 500,000 people. Seasonal allergies were also prevalent during May and these cause congestion, runny nose, and a cough. Does that sound like the flu? Colds and other seasonal flues were also present among New Yorkers. Unless one believes that their phone screeners were as good as doctors evaluating a patient in the office, the numbers NYT quotes are misleading.
Overall, I doubt that there were 500,000 h1n1 cases in the city during the early portion of this outbreak-that is in May. Such percent of the population is typically affected during the entire course of a flu outbreak and not during the initial several weeks.
There are now 32 reported deaths from this flu in NYC and the mortality rate seems to be close to other seasonal flues (0.1%) - that might mean roughly 32,000 New Yorkers affected so far. If you consider that not every dead New Yorker will be checked for the Swine Flu, the real number may be significantly higher, but these are late June statistics. The May claims seem exaggerated.
By now, I have had some direct experience working with patients that were afflicted with the swine flu and who required hospitalization. Early on, NYC doctors heard that most of the people who test positive for influenza A are actually infected with the swine flu. Therefore we employed a rapid flu screen since it detects both influenza A and B. Surprisingly, this rapid flu test in its capacity to screen for the swine flu turned out to be a dud; with this particular virus it is only 19% sensitive. PCR will detect the H1N1 flu virions more reliably and this test appears sensitive, but it takes days to receive the result. Thus, the problem with PCR is that if you want to decide on using anti-virals within the time frame that these drugs will be effective, you cannot wait for this more sensitive and specific test. Therefore, in choosing whom to prescribe Tamilfu to, you must use your clinical skills. There is no reliable rapid laboratory analysis that will answer this question for you. The PCR test is useful for statistical analysis and in some cases post-mortem, but it is useless in the clinic.
That brings up the next topic I want to address. I know of a patient who died from this virus and his pre-existing medical conditions were relatively unremarkable. After admission to hospital with URI symptoms, he became progressively more hypoxic. Chest CT showed diffuse infiltrates. He received Tamiflu, steroids, and antibiotics, but he still required a lot of supplemental oxygen. Without the non-rebreather mask his oxygen saturation was in the 80's, but on supplemental oxygen it improved to mid-90's. Tamiflu did not save him, even though he was on it for a whole week and it was started shortly after he developed symptoms -within 48 hours to be precise. PCR eventually confirmed the H1N1 infection. It may be that while Tamiflu will help with typical flu symptoms and shorten the course of the illness, it may not help those who develop life threatening viral pneumonia. If you have the genetic composition to react in this way to this virus and develop diffuse pulmonary infiltrates, don't place a whole lot of hope on Tamiflu. For this particular patient, there may also have been an inflammatory reaction around the myocardium, since he suddenly went into cardiac arrest. The hypoxia was under control. He didn't have any significant pre-existing cardiac disease. Cardiac arrhythmia seems to be the most plausible explanation here, and it is known to arise when the myocardium is inflamed.
Such severe reaction to this virus appears rare since we are not seeing widespread admissions to the ICU, while most people with this virus recover and go home within just a few days. However, there are some who develop life threatening complications and the H1N1 deaths seem to occur among the young and middle aged individuals. Whenever their pre-existing medical conditions are mentioned, these afflictions sound relatively minor. The fatal mechanism might involve precisely this form of severe viral-inspired pulmonary inflammation. Considering the above patient's course, I am not sure that Tamiflu is going to be all that important in reducing swine flu associated mortality.
The NYC government website lists 32 deaths thus far and provides some superficial information about New Yorkers who were hospitalized, as well as those who died from this virus. What's missing is an in depth evaluation of how these folks died. Until that information is analyzed and released, you are left only with my conjectures.