Stockholm, Mar 31:
With most of Europe imposing extraordinary restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, Sweden has left its citizens surprisingly free. Are Swedes rolling the dice with their public health, or is everyone else overreacting?
The streets of Stockholm and Malmo are noticeably quieter than usual, but positively bustling compared to those of Copenhagen, Oslo, London, Paris and Rome. Standing in bars is banned but as long as punters can find a seat they’re free to enjoy a night out. Other steps taken include gatherings of more than 50 people being banned and the over 70s being urged to self-isolate.
Only time will tell what the best response to this year’s outbreak turns out to be, but for the moment Sweden’s move is not anything unique!
It is called herd immunity which is is potentially effective but horrible to consider: just wait until enough people get it.
Last week the herd immunity idea blew up in the headlines after UK prime minister Boris Johnson indicated that country’s official strategy might be to put on a stiff upper lip and let the disease run its course. The chief science adviser to the UK government, Patrick Vallance, said the country needed to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.”
Yesterday, the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, struck a similar note, saying, “We can slow down the spread of the virus while at the same time building group immunity in a controlled way.”
But what exactly is herd immunity?
When enough of the population is resistant to a germ, its spread stops naturally because not enough people are able to transmit it. Thus, the “herd” is immune, even though many individuals within it still are not.
Although it is ghastly to contemplate the prospect of billions being infected by the coronavirus, which has an estimated fatality rate per infection somewhere around 1%.
For herd immunity to take hold, people must become resistant after they are infected. That occurs with many germs: people who are infected and recover become resistant to getting that disease again, because their immune system is charged with antibodies able to defeat it.
Vaccines create herd immunity too, either when given widely or sometimes when administered in a “ring” around a new case of a rare infection. That’s how diseases like smallpox were eradicated and why polio is close to being erased.