In its latest swine flu update, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says the total number of deaths in the world has gone up to 1,799 (as of August 13), an increase of 337 since its last weekly update. The report mentions that Ghana, Zambia and Tuvalu have reported their first confirmed A(H1N1) cases.

In India, the influenza toll has touched 50 in less than three weeks since the first death. A doctor at Mumbai’s Rajawadi Hospital agrees that the panic caused by the outbreak is understandable. “In the case of such an outbreak,” he says, “the genetic combination of the virus is not known. As a result, it takes time to come up with drugs to combat the virus; the vaccine takes even longer. Meanwhile, the disease, being contagious, spreads rapidly and creates panic.”

The panic is thus a result of the novelty, contagiousness and sudden outbreak of the disease, and not of its actual mortality. Sample this: 1,799 people who have died because of swine flu worldwide constitute only 0.98 per cent of the total number of infected (1,82,166).

The doctor says that other diseases do not catch media attention because of the absence of the novelty factor. Also, there are drugs and procedures already in place to deal with them. And, with a few exceptions, they are not contagious. However, their mortality rates are higher. In short, they are the silent killers.

According to statistics available with the Birhanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Joint Executive Health Officer Girish Ambe, 23,200 people died of heart diseases in 2007 in Mumbai alone (civic, government and private hospitals). The number has seen a steady rise over the years; in 2004, it was 20,922.

After heart diseases, the second leading cause of death in 2007 was tuberculosis (9,850), followed by cancer (6,112), pneumonia (4,102) and bronchitis (2,687). Diabetes caused more deaths (1,842) in Mumbai alone than swine flu has so far worldwide.

Further, according to an estimate of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States of America, between 2,50,000 and 5,00,000 people die of regular flu every year worldwide. According to a Reuters report, malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds. While the WHO estimates that a third of the world’s population would be infected by swine flu in the coming years, 40 per cent of the global population is said to be “at risk” when it comes to malaria.

Doctors say that while it is necessary not to lower the guard against swine flu despite its low mortality, it is also essential to see the threat in proper perspective.

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