Personal Finance

H1N1 and Irrationality

pigI’ve been amazed at people’s reaction to H1N1 for a number of reasons.  I was *SHOCKED* that they were able to get the name changed from “Swine Flu” to H1N1 (people involved with the pork industry started oinking immediately after the pandemic started and amazingly managed to get it renamed).  I still like to call it “the pig flu”.

I’ve also been amazed at the crazy reaction people have been having, trying to avoid contact with other people and lining up for hours to try to get vaccinated (and coming close to rioting when they’ve run out of vaccine).  Pandemic is a scary word, but I’m going to go on record saying that we’ll look back at H1N1 and say (much like Y2K or SARS) “what did we get so worked up about?”

Please check out Mike’s post – Should I get H1N1 Vaccine for my kids?

As of Oct 26th, 86 Canadians have died.  This is sad.  Since the flu debuted in April, let’s call this 13 people / month or 0.41 Canadians a day.  The average Canadian has a (0.41 / 33,212,696 [Canadian population]) = 0.00000123%) chance of dying from the pig flu.  Another way of expressing this is you have a 1 in 81,006,575 chance of dying from the pig flu EVERY DAY!!!

Given that Americans have a 1 : 280,000 ANNUAL chance of being struck by lightening (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume comparable odds for Canucks),this would give us a 1 : 102,270,000 (280,000 * 365.25) daily chance of being struck by lightening (slightly less likely than dying from catching the pig flu).  How many precautions are you taking to avoid that?

In 2005, 2,860 “road users” died.  At 7.83 / day, this gives us 19.1 TIMES the chance of dying on a road (in a car, as a pedestrian or as a cyclist) than from H1N1.  This actually UNDERSTATES the comparison, because we considered all Canadians with the flu, but only “road users” are at risk of dying on the road.  Remember also, this is just fatalities, we’re ignoring non-fatal injuries.

To switch it around and consider a happier thought, the chance of winning the Lotto 649 is 1/13,983,816 = 0.000007151%, or more than double your daily chance of dying from the swing flu, EVERY TIME YOU PLAY!!!  Should we all run out and buy tickets?

Of the hordes stampeding to get vaccinated, how many are avoiding roads?  If we consider the risk of death associated with road use to be reasonable (which, clearly, most of us do), how can we be panicking over something that is far less likely to affect us?

Some may say “well, yes, but there’s a CHANCE it’ll kill me, so isn’t it worth taking some small precautions to avoid it?”.  Yes, sure, but remember there are INFINITE ways to die.  Some of the actions you’d take to avoid some, will INCREASE your chance of others (say you become a shut-in to avoid the dangers outside your home, you’ve now increased your exposure to all the ways you can die at home).  If you can easily get vaccinated and it’ll reduce your stress level, knock yourself out.  Just to pump up the stress back up a little, think about all the things that are more likely to kill you that you haven’t even thought of!

What does this mean for a personal finance blog?

First of all, behaving rationally is worthwhile in life, but it’s VITAL in investing.  Getting caught up in the madness of crowds is what leads to dot-com (or tulip) bubbles.  Just by identifying the craziness as craziness (and getting off of the ride), you can improve your returns MASSIVELY.

Secondly, I’m not sure what they are but I think there must be some killer deals to be had based on the public’s over-reaction to this.  Perhaps now is the time to book a flight and travel on the cheap?  Maybe some stocks are beaten down with investors expecting the next black plague.

How worried are you about H1N1?  Can you think of any investments that would pay off if H1N1 turns out not to be a big deal?

32 replies on “H1N1 and Irrationality”

Here in Ontario, the death of a boy changed the public awareness instantly. As a student nurse, I have to get the H1N1 vaccine within two weeks or be rejected from my future clinic placement 🙁
According to one of my professor, H1N1 is just ANOTHER TYPE OF FLU! The only difference between it and rest of strains is that victims are young, healthy, and/or pregnant so far. If I don’t have a test tomorrow, I would research about how many people died from influenza in last year.

For investment side, I would buy airliners and short pharmaceutical companies. But, I have no plan to trade stocks for awhile (exam, exam, yet another exam).

Good point about the renaming – I can’t believe the “H1N1” tag actually stuck. I thought it was going to be like the Skydome/Roger’s Centre rename where everyone still calls it the Skydome except for sports media stations owned by Rogers (apparently all of them).

On the news last night, Toronto Public Health said that Toronto typically sees 300 flu related deaths per year during flu season – so far there have been 31 H1N1 flu-related deaths in Toronto.

We have had a few friends and family members diagnosed with H1N1 (none with underlying medical issues) and all have recovered in 3-4 days .

Mike: I actually saw the title of your post in the queue (I already had this one planned), but didn’t read it (I was worried that this post might offend you if you WERE planning to vaccinate your kids 😉 ).

The coverage I’ve seen has been kind of interesting as hysteria goes – all the healthy people lying about being high risk and so on – especially having just read the superfreakonomics chapter about altruism and apathy. Personally, we’re having the panic beaten into us at work with memos telling us (but it’s “not mandatory”) to get the shot and emails about symptoms and so on. Cynicism is not allowed, in the “think of the chiiildreen” sense.

I’ve been thinking about the flight deals too (great minds!). Did the cost of trips to mexico go down when it was ground zero initially? But expect that all the flying over xmas will lead to more flu cases and create even more panic.

Mr. Cheap – Don’t worry I’m not offended. I’m pretty rational about the whole vaccine thing.

I’ll spoil the surprise by saying that we are getting them vaccinated but our doctor is doing it so there won’t be any 6 hour waits.

Mr C – that image should have been of a piggy bank!
Maybe now is a good time to stock up on pork. If the pork farmers go under, we may be looking at a shortage of pork in the coming months.

Sadly, the prices of trips to Mexico aren’t as rock bottom as you’d expect. In fact the strong Canadian dollar is actually saving you more money than the “hamthrax” scare.

This was an awesome post btw!

Here are some links that might be helpful

How to tell the difference between a Cold and H1N1 Flu Symptoms

H1N1 Swine Flu Vaccine Ingredients

The Death of the boy sent panic to Canadians, however if you were the father, would you send your son to play hockey? Would you let your sick kid take a bath? As a South East Asian descent, we don’t do those. We let the kid take a rest, have a soup and other natural remedies.

Jess, I really don’t think it’s fair to blame the kid’s father (or his ethnicity) for the death. From what I read in the paper it didn’t sound like the kid was very sick when he played his last hockey game. As for the bath – are you suggesting that had a part in the death? He didn’t drown.

I’d have to check on this, but i think the country that has the largest ‘hysteria’ going on the H1N1 is Canada. It barely makes the top 10 news stories on american channels.

The fact that mostly young, healthy people are the ones affected by it is one of the reasons for concerns. Were it to get worse, the whole economy would shut down. But it seems to be just a bad strain of the flu. I have friends with it that are recovering fine. Hell, even an Edmonton Oiler had it, and played right through it.


No, I wasn’t blaming the father but I think parents should have some sort of responsibility. I was saying that If I was ther father, I would have cancel everything and let the kid rest even if the symptom is mild. High fever combined with vigorous ongoing exercise, loss of fluids, calories, electrolytes, etc. are all lethal to the healthy athlete.

My question to everyone, what would you have done if you were a parent?

I’ll admit there is a lot of hysteria about the H1N1 virus. Were I still a bachelor I wouldn’t worry about it. But with three kids, two under age three, it’s a real concern. It’s really not worth rolling the dice and having them get sick. It seems to affect kids a lot more than other flu’s and can be worse for kids that have asthmatic symptoms. We’re not walking around with face masks but we’re going to do what we can to get vaccinated.

As for investments, it could be a good time to invest in the company that creates Tamiflu? Or any company that creates flu symptom medicines?

Mr Cheap, I think your math is off. If you listen to Health Canada’s numbers/WHO numbers the risk of dying is much higher throughout the entire flu season than your calculation because your numbers are based on our risk over the non-flu season. I haven’t dug into the calculation of the stats from the government, just am pointing out that the stats you calculated might be underestimating any risk 🙂
Also, what would be interesting to find (and I haven’t seen this number in media anywhere) is the risk for those with underlying conditions vs the risk for those without (i.e. otherwise healthy people).
I find the backlash against the media hype to be quite interesting. People are coming out very strongly in favour or not in favour of getting vaccinated. Trouble is, like anything, I think there is truth to both sides of story, rather than it being a black and white issue as it ends up being portrayed.
Anyway, off to get vaccinated…..

While I agree with you Mr. Cheap that these issues can and have been leading to hysteria, I don’t think your analogies and ‘odds’ of getting severe illness are very relevant.

You’ve calculated the % of death caused by the illness, but as Philip pointed out, this particular illness (much like the Spanish flu) seemed to have more severe effects among a specific group of the population. These numbers (like the lightning strikes) are diluted by those people that are inherently at lower risk (like those living in areas where there are no thunder/lightning storms).

I never get seasonal flu vaccinations, I’ll likely get the H1N1 vaccine though. What I find more interesting are the ‘side-effects’ of the hysteria. The circus of conspiracy theorists, paranoia and anti-scientist, government, and health-care sentiment that has shown up.

We’re an imaginative species, its like back in the boom, people were envisioning life like in the Jetsons, but 10 years later, a lot of things are still the same – we still get crazy and worked up about the latest big thing 😉 – I blame it all on the media and O.J.

As Wooly Woman pointed out, your math is off — the flu season hasn’t started yet, so while we may have a decent estimate of the number of deaths, the denominator (number of sick) is poorly known. Wikipedia’s figure of 12k is probably vastly understated, and you’d need a real epidemiologist to estimate the actual death rate at this point, and I merely play one on the internet.

Nonetheless, H1N1 is looking to be 2-10X deadlier than a typical seasonal flu, and is somewhat more contagious. In a typical flu season, roughly 5000 Canadians die, and about 20% get sick.

Great post and I couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t help that the media is helping blow this out of proprotion. I have a one year old and today is the first day that I called the doctor about possibly vaccinating her. Why did I do this? Well small children are more likely to get sick and their immune system is not as resiliant as say mine. With that said when the doctor’s office told me they didn’t have any vaccine my reaction was not to go line up in a few hour line up it was to get my doctors opinion on if we’re ok to wait. My daughter is hale and healthy and my gut tells me we’re probably going to be told its safe to wait till the vaccine is generally available.

I’m a bit blown away by the fear mongering that has come out of this pandemic. Is it a potentially serious issue? Yes. Do we need to go crazy about it? No. The reality is that a few groups are more likely to suffer as a result of this and those groups should be taken care of… everyone else needs to stop panicing about something that’s not likely to impact them.

In the media reports I viewed it appeared that the boy was still *healthy* when he played the hockey game and only began to display symptoms afterwards. And a tepid bath is a common medical recommendation to help bring down a fever that is threatening to put a child at risk of seizure (varies person to person, but usually the seizure threshold is somewhere around 104F). A bath often also makes sense if a child has thrown up on himself or in his hair (i.e. vomited while lying down). Please don’t blame the father!

I’m writing this as my 6 year old and I are recovering from what is presumably the H1N1 version of the flu. While nobody has bothered to test us, I had the seasonal vaccine a week ago and at least one child in Dear Child’s class has had H1N1, so it’s the likeliest scenario.

What I’m angry about is that I *tried* to get the shot as I am clearly high risk. (I have asthma and have had pneumonia 3 times in my life, once *after* having had the pneumococcal vaccine.) I called the doctor as soon as it came out, went in as directed and they were *out* because they’d only been given *80* doses for all their high-risk patients! That amount of vaccine lasted them less than a day! They gave me the seasonal instead and told me to come back at the beginning of this week when they’d have a new shipment. Only I was already sick by then.

So, now I’m on Tamiflu and finally managed to keep down tea & toast last night. DC is recovering better luckily.

As for the hysteria, get this. Hubby went to work today and mentioned us being sick (he didn’t say anything Monday) and his boss immediately emailed him to go home and stay home unless he could provide a doctor’s note that he *wasn’t* contagious! Yeah, like a doc is going to be able to do that. And he doesn’t have any symptoms. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe not. But it seems extreme to send him home before he’s sick!

WW, Sampson & Potato: What?!?! You’re saying I wasn’t able to create an accurate epidemiological model which is accessible to the layperson, and topically relevant, in 650 words??? Gosh, sorry… 🙂

(I’m actually impressed you have such high expectations of me)

Yes, the flu season hasn’t started yet, which will change things. Also, as Sampson & WW point out, I’m treating Canadians as a homogeneous group, while the disease has different impacts on different populations. Also I didn’t account for potential adverse reactions to vaccines on the other side of the equation, and, and, and…

What I *expected* people to attack on the numbers is that with diseases the chance of infection (and therefore death) ACCELERATES, so using a probability based on the entire history of the disease is clearly misleading for the current state (H1N1 is still in an exponential growth phase as far as I know). Heck, basing the probability on recent infection rates is misleading, as these will probably grow or fall off in the near future.

If H1N1 is 2-10X deadlier than a typical flu season (which seems reasonable to me), I *still* don’t think it’s a reason for freaking out (just be 2-10 times more concerned than you were other flu seasons).

Feel free to correct my math with any considerations you feel are important (I’ll be happy to point out factors YOU’VE overlooked ;-).

I’m glad that you are putting this article out there. This swine flu Epic-Gimmick is a scam.

And of course it is all about personal finance. Because the personal finance of the people who are selling Tamiflu and these barely tested Vaccines (which by the way are turning out to be more dangerous than the flu itself) are getting rich REAL fast!

The REGULAR flu kills over 30,000 people a year in America and over 250,000 people worldwide every year. So far the swine flu has killed a little over 3,000 Worldwide! Don’t believe the hype.

See, it didn’t take long for the conspiracy theorists to come out! 😉

I suppose the government IS actually accelerating the fears. I think the reality is that these types of illnesses WILL spread whether there are major attempts at wide-spread vaccination or not – just hope you’re immune system is up to snuff and you don’t end up a statistic 😉

What this really highlights is that if there really was an epidemic with moderate to high non-discriminate death rates, say 2-10% – we’d be screwed. Our government wouldn’t roll out action efficiently, people would riot and probably get violent. Man, all those movies I watched WERE true. Time to get all Charlton Heston on you guys – where’s my machine gun?

I thought I would add my two cents. To be upfront, I plan to get the H1N1 vaccine. Having said that, I get the flu shot every year as well. I also wear a helmet when I ride my bike, wear my seatbelt in the car, and look both ways before I cross the road. To me it is simply taking an extra precaution. I refused to wait in line for 6 hours though. Once all the hysteria is relented then I will go and get the shot.

I am actually very surprised at the number of conspiracy theorists out there. I wont go into details but I have heard some crazy stories.

Finally, I do find it amusing that the government spent all this money on a marketing campaign to tell everyone that they need to get vaccinated and informed them about all the dangers of H1N1 and then the same government is shocked when people actually listen to them and decide that they will in fact get vaccinated.

Nice thread; the funny thing is that I’m in the same boat as Mike in that I too wrote a post on H1N1 set to publish for tomorrow!

I think the poor kid that died not long after a hockey game sent the country into more of a hysteria-oriented mood, and perhaps rightfully so given some of the risks this virus poses. I think Harper’s remarks a few weeks back also confused a lot of Canadians about whether he would get the vaccination or not.

I just expected a p value Mr/Soon to be Dr Cheap. Hahahahaha. You can bash my numbers (I am posting a rare blog post just so you can do this, and NO, I did not calc. a p value), it is one of those cases where, while the numbers are concrete in themselves ( 92 deaths is pretty clear), it is how you choose to present the numbers that can change the story.
Interesting debate, I am amazed I haven’t seen more on this subject, but my blog reading is limited these days.

A couple of points to consider — seasonal flu usually kills elderly people, and those in nursing homes. H1N1 is killing young, healthy people and children. To be a financial opportunist, maybe the nursing homes will be more full this winter.

Wait wait wait. Isn’t it killing the elderly? The elderly are dying more from it? Or is is 25 to 49? Or 18 to 24? Or 5 to 18? Or 0 to 5?
I am soooo confused?
More so I hate my friends. One group says, (Sudo-scientists raw foodist vegan holistic artists ) Don’t get vaccine formaldehyde mercury autism paralysis flu and death will happen and all of it is hype and it won’t guard you if the flu mutates.
Other group is saying (Nurses, family, doctors, young parents) get the vaccine it is safe the who would never allow a potentially dangerous vaccination blah blah.

Some friends say: Incubation period 4 hours before symptoms.
Other friends say 12 days (these are the people that don’t believe in vaccinations by the way.)
then some people say nothing to worry about you are young and healthy although the young and healthy (especially woman have a higher fatality rate) But then they are saying in the news IT IS THE OLD IT IS THE OLD! But when you read carefully the highest percentage is that of 25 to 49 BUT the headlines is either THE OLD or THE YOUNG and although it is novel what with the young dying why then aren’t 25 to 35 year old women (men too?) ON THE PRIORITY LIST!!!!!?????

Unless of course the fatality rate for us isn’t actually higher. And why do my friends talk to matter of factly huh? Should I call them on it? I don’t like it when people hand out falsities like bandaids

I don’t think Ill get the vaccine until I get some answers because I am clearly very confused….

In regards to the calculation of swine flu (or any other flu for that matter) being off.
If a single case of the flu is found during the spring / summer / fall / winter, by definition the flu season is year round. So, let’s say it’s never hit for 3 months out of the year, althought I’ve known people to get it throughout the year.
According to this US article:
There have been a total of 877 deaths (and 22,364 cases) due to Influenza. Not a specific type, but ALL cases.

The current population of the US is 307,956,226 (

Now, the chances are as follows:
getting the flu: 1 in 0.00007262 or 1 chance out of 13,770
dying from the flu: 1 in 0.000002848 or 1 out of every 351,147 people

That’s a pretty small chance of getting the flu, much less dying from it.

Some background on me and my family:
Neither of our 4 children have ever received any flu shot. They have contracted it from other children in their schools, but have gotten over it in just a few days. And one of them has a mild case asthma.
I however had a bad case of asthma when I was young. I would sometime wake up in the back of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face. This is in spite of having received some kind of steriod (via a shot about once every 2 weeks for 3-4 years), that was supposed to prevent the asthma attacks I experienced. My choice was to control my breathing (learning how to get by on less breathing), while I was breathing OK … and when I thought of it. I also have noted over the years that certain food dyes can make my (and our daughter’s) breathing more difficult. They are FD&C Blue #2 (Indigotine), FD&C Red #40 (Allura Red), FD&C Yellow #5 (Tartrazine, Sunset Yellow)

The only time I have ever contracted the flu was coincidentally the same year that I received the flu shot (the only time in my life).

As for asthma and possible triggers, feel free to visit this link I found in a Google search:

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