Feature

New swine flu warning

To the surprise of U.S. health officials, swine flu has been spreading rapidly among children and teens in summer camps, leading to warnings that the pandemic will probably return with a vengeance in the fall.

What happenedTo the surprise of U.S. health officials, swine flu has been spreading rapidly among children and teens in summer camps, leading to warnings that the pandemic will probably return with a vengeance in the fall. Flu epidemics usually peter out in the warmer months, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that swine flu has forced thousands of campers to spend time in the infirmary or return home early. “We have 33 camps in Maine with outbreaks,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Maine’s public-health director. “Some of them have 70 to 100 kids in isolation.” Most people who get swine flu recover after a week or so of high fever, aches, and respiratory distress, but as swine flu continues its global march, nearly 800 elderly, very young, and other vulnerable people have died from it worldwide in the past four months.

In a worst-case scenario, the CDC said, the H1N1 virus could infect more than 100 million Americans over the next two years, with as many as 200,000 of the vulnerable dying. Globally, the highly contagious virus could eventually strike as many as 2 billion people, or one-third of the world population, said the World Health Organization. The U.S. recently began testing H1N1 vaccines, and manufacturers are rushing to have 160 million doses on the market by October.

What the editorials saidAs frightening as the projections are, said The Hartford Courant, this pandemic won’t be nearly as devastating as the 1918 flu that killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide. Not only is H1N1 far less deadly, but the world is better prepared. “The enhanced ability to track the spread of the virus, plan mass immunization campaigns, and conduct public-awareness campaigns (frequent washing of hands, isolating oneself as much as possible, and so forth) all bode well for meeting the swine flu challenge.”

For that, we can thank the avian flu scare, said the Baltimore Sun. In response to that scare, President Bush allocated billions to develop a sophisticated pandemic response and to stockpile antiviral drugs. As health officials race to develop a vaccine, ordinary citizens have a big part to play, too—by rolling up their sleeves and volunteering to get shots. “Not only do we need volunteers to make sure vaccines are safe and effective, but once they are proven, we all need to make sure they are widely used.”

What the columnists said Take it from someone who’s had “the Oink,” said Mark Hemmingway in National Review Online, it isn’t a very pleasant experience. I might have been spared this ordeal if only I’d been serious about using hand sanitizer, or if certain colleagues hadn’t forced themselves to go into the office when they started feeling sick. “Trust me—you do not want to have the week I’ve had, nor do you want to be responsible for getting people you care about sick. A little prevention will go a long way.”

People still aren’t taking this flu seriously, said pediatrician Claudia Meininger Gold in The Boston Globe. When an outbreak hit my daughter’s summer camp, the camp did a poor job of isolating sick children, and did nothing to identify those with conditions such as asthma or diabetes that would put them at risk of dangerous complications. When I complained, I was accused of trying to cause a panic.

My daughter and I recently experienced the opposite extreme, said Sheryl Gay Stolberg in The New York Times. Olivia got sick on a trip to China and was one of two dozen American teenagers who were forcibly quarantined because Chinese authorities still think they can contain swine flu. World health officials say quarantines are an “absurd” overreaction, given that swine flu appears to be no more dangerous than typical flu strains.

What next?Officials are nervously looking ahead to the fall, when the return of cold weather and school could mean a surge in new infections. Since H1N1 vaccines will not be ready immediately, the CDC is strongly urging all children to get the regular seasonal flu vaccine, which may provide partial immunity and some relief from symptoms. The recommendation is “no longer just an encouragement or ‘where feasible,’” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.

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