Up to half of the U.S. population could contract swine flu this upcoming flu season, killing up to 90,000 people and hospitalizing 1.8 million, according to a report released by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Americans lack immunity to the swine flu, which gives the virus the potential to infect more people than the seasonal flu generally does. And although many people who contract the disease might not show symptoms, and most would not be hospitalized, the pandemic
would put a strain on the U.S. health-care system ... because those patients could occupy between 50% and 100% of available intensive-care beds at the peak of the epidemic in affected regions, while ICU units normally operate close to capacity. Seasonal flu normally causes about 200,000 hospitalizations a year [The Wall Street Journal].
Although the figures put forth by the report sound logical, a number of variables make it difficult to predict whether the actual number of infected Americans will exceed--or fall short of--the White House's predictions. For example,
the estimates are based on various assumptions, including that the virus will not mutate into a more dangerous form or infect more older people. "If it turned out to affect a lot more adults, the severity would be a lot worse" [The Washington Post],
says public health expert Marc Lipsitch. On the other hand, the outbreak could also be milder than predicted. The primary purpose of the estimates was to help guide planning to protect the public. For example, it was estimated that the outbreak could peak in mid-October, so the panel urged expediting the availability of a vaccine
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