Put the panic in pandemic

One of the more popular words in the media these days is a true favorite of ours because it instantly brings about visions of worldwide trouble, calamity and death. And you know how we media types just love that stuff! That word is “pandemic.”

To reach pandemic status, a disease must be infectious (so cancer is out) and rapidly spread through a large region. It doesn’t have to kill millions to qualify. But still, our greatest pandemics do exactly that—keep ole Mr. Reaper extremely busy. While no one will deny that this latest H1N1 has pandemic potential, it also has a good way to go before it makes any kind of real historic impact.

Right now, it ain’t much. As of Monday, May 11th, there were 4,694 cases of swine flu worldwide, with the U.S. having the most at 2,532. As for the death toll, it stood at exactly three here in America. Yes, there are loads of new confirmations every day, but what’s now obvious is that this flu just doesn’t pack much of a wallop if you’ve got any kind of health at all. As a result, while technically we are indeed watching a pandemic in action (now confirmed in 30 countries), there’s no way this disease, in its present form, is gonna put the “panic” in “pandemic.”

For perspective, let’s take a quick look at the stats racked up by some of our more famous and muscular pandemics. That flu pandemic of 1918-1919, brought on by the so-called Spanish Flu, was the real deal, spreading to all continents and infecting 500 million people, which back then was fully 33 percent of the planet’s population. The death toll was anywhere from 50 to 100 million. If the pandemics had an Olympic team, this sucker would carry the flag into the stadium.

The Black Death, which opened up a serious can of whup-ass in Europe in the 14th century, kept that continent in a headlock for decades. Beginning in 1348, 30 million Europeans dropped dead over the first six years, a rather sudden decrease of about a third of the entire population. In 30 years, England alone had lost half of its humans. Doctors at that time had to be suffering from truly acute issues of self-esteem. And the AIDS pandemic in Africa is well on its way to racking up historical numbers, with infection rates in some southern and eastern African countries now around 25 percent. The death toll for the entire continent could hit 100 million in the next 15 years.

The swine flu? Still rates as small potatoes. But rest assured, if it ever becomes a bigger, nastier spud, there are thousands of us journalists and bloggers worldwide who are ready to tell you when it’s time to take off your pants, set your hair ablaze, and run screaming down the street.