Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Mexico flu: What if?

Outside the Box
John Mangun
Business Mirror

It is probably a sin to gain an advantage from others’ misfortune. Yet, if you had nothing to do with someone else’s hardship, then maybe profiting from it is all right.

In late 2002 through mid-2003, the world was gripped in a justifiable near-panic over the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. Over the nine months of the virus being active, some 8,000 people worldwide were infected and 774 died from SARS. Travel and tourism in Asia ground to a halt. Of course, the Philippines was spared, with just a very few possible cases being identified here.

Jump forward to 2009, and the world is facing the potential of a virus outbreak that will make SARS seem insignificant.

The last major flu pandemic occurred in 1968. In comparison to SARS killing 700, more than 30,000 people died in the USA alone. Globally, some 1 million succumbed to the disease, meaning probably more than 50 million were infected worldwide.

The preliminary numbers coming out of this particular virus’s origin, Mexico, are not necessarily accurate. However, if it turns out the first data are accurate, big trouble is on the horizon. Mexico City health authorities say nearly 1,600 suspected cases have been reported, with more than 140 dead. That translates into a 7-plus-percent mortality rate. SARS carried about a 9-percent death rate. But more important, the mortality rate in the 1968-1969 flu pandemic was very low at less than 3 percent. That means that the death potential now in 2009 is at least twice as high as in 1968. Further, the ability of this current strain of flu to spread rapidly seems to be much greater than in previous contagions.

From Reuters: “It [virus] has been found in several places and among people who had no known contact [with infected persons]. This suggests there is an unseen chain of infection and that the virus has been spreading quietly.” As of this writing, cases have been identified in as far-flung places as the USA, Scotland, New Zealand and Spain. Suspected cases are also reported in France, Norway, Germany, Sweden and Israel.

A week from now, as more information emerges and is confirmed, it may be that this turns out to be an isolated and short-lived concern, a minor footnote to the other “crisis” of 2009.

But if not . . .

SARS had two unique qualities that aborted a pandemic. The disease was quickly debilitating. People who contracted the illness were forced to seek major medical help very soon after the virus bloomed. SARS was not quiet. Second, the mode of transmission was clear: airborne from infected person to the healthy.

Because of these two factors, the duration was short, about nine months. By contrast, the 1968 flu pandemic lasted more than one year.

This current strain of Mexican swine flu does not create dramatic symptoms at the beginning. Those who contract the virus suffer the mild effects of other more benign virus—slight fever, cough, minor body aches. It is just these symptoms that make this virus so dangerous. By the time a person becomes very sick, he may have spent days in normal contact with coworkers, family members and strangers, spreading the disease easily. And the mode of transmission is not clear at this point.

For its ease of contagion and hidden symptoms, the World Health Organization has raised its Pandemic Alert level to 4 (out of 6) for the first time since this scale was revised in 2005. Level 5 means that we have a full-blown global epidemic. We will know by the end of next week what the rest of the year will be like.

If, and this is a big if, this turns serious, what is happening in Mexico is a foreshadow of what is to come. Mexico suspended all schools nationwide until May 6, affecting over 50 million students. Tourist travel is over until this situation is resolved, as the European Union has issued a strongly worded travel advisory for both Mexico and the USA. On the other side of Mexico, the resort town of Acapulco ordered all bars and nightclubs closed.

The USA and Europe will lose billions in productivity if this disease spreads. Think of the loss of revenue from shopping centers and commercial districts empty for fear of infection. Public transportation is shut down. Businesses employing hundreds of workers in close proximity, like call centers and factories, are forced to shut down temporarily. Events from major sporting contests to children’s birthday parties are canceled. And this could last for months.

Already, the financial markets are starting to react. One major investment house sees the potential of an initial drop of 7 percent on Western stock markets if the situation deteriorates. Copper, aluminum and nickel retreated in London this week on the prospects of slower economic growth, and crude oil weakened on the outlook for air travel over concerns about the virus.

And here we sit in the Philippines.

Oil prices down? Great for this economy. Tourists not heading to North America? Thailand in political turmoil? Try the Philippines. Potential for lower business revenue hurting the Western stock markets? Invest the PSE. Western health care under strain? Hire more nurses from the Philippines.

Is it just possible that for once the Philippines is under a bright ray of sunshine while most of the world is covered in storms?

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