Saturday, May 02, 2009

Swine Flu: Some Good News at Last

It's too soon to let our guard down. Complacency can still be fatal. Millions of people could still die.

But it looks as if the new influenza virus isn't the killer of 1918.

And more good news if you can call it that. It also looks like many people in Mexico might have died because they didn't receive proper medical attention in time. Or self medicated themselves.

There may well be other factors to explain why patients like Mrs. GutiƩrrez, whose medical records show a desperate, belated scramble by doctors to keep her alive, are dying in Mexico at a higher rate than flu patients elsewhere. Mexicans may have been hit by a different, deadlier strain, or the flu may have infected more people who had other health problems, researchers speculate.

But one important factor may be the eclectic approach to health care in Mexico, where large numbers of people self-prescribe antibiotics, take only homeopathic medicine, or seek out mysterious vitamin injections. For many, only when all else fails do they go to a doctor, who may or may not be well prepared.

And the danger is that the same thing could happen in other parts of the world.

As the outbreak spreads, and so does panic. And people try to get their hands on anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu.

Because along with a drug called Relenza it's the main weapon in our arsenal to fight a pandemic. Misusing one or the other could cause resistance to spread.

And a new study suggests that if a pandemic breaks out we will need both of them.

What they learned was that the best possible way to stop a pandemic from spreading was for every country to have stockpiles of two different antiviral drugs to treat flu: A primary stockpile and a secondary one. The first wave of cases should be treated with the secondary drug until it runs out, then the next wave should be treated with the primary drug. This knocks out the first wave of virus, and then just as it begins to evolve resistance hits it with a new drug.

Apparently in scenarios where public health officials respond like this, using what's called "sequential drug multitherapy" or SMC, the spread of the virus is reduced significantly. "Monotherapy," or the treatment with just one drug, created a lot of drug-resistant flu strains and did not significantly impair the spread of the epidemic.

And since many countries don't even have enough of ONE drug, you can imagine what could happen.

Today was a good day.

But the battle is far from over....

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