Feature

Swine flu threat recedes

Fears of a global swine flu pandemic receded this week, and confidence grew that the virus is less potent than initially believed.

Fears of a global swine flu pandemic receded this week, as stores, restaurants, and factories in Mexico reopened and health officials in the U.S. reversed a recommendation that schools with even a single infected student be shut down. Although a 33-year-old schoolteacher in Texas became the first American with the infection to die in the U.S., confidence grew that the virus is less potent than initially believed. Still, officials warned that the virus could mutate and return stronger in the fall. “People are still getting infected and sick,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “This is why we are preparing now for what may come in the future.” The World Health Organization has now confirmed more than 1,600 cases of the flu in 23 countries; 642 cases have been logged in the U.S.

So can everyone now please calm down? said Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. At the very least, let’s call off those absurd comparisons to the deadly 1918 Spanish flu, which seem “to be included in nearly every news account of the swine flu outbreak.” Amid our “bouts of hysteria,” it’s easy to forget that, thanks to medical advances and unprecedented levels of information-sharing across national borders, “we are better equipped than ever to minimize the effects of a pandemic.”

We still need to take precautions, said the San Jose Mercury News in an editorial. Most of all, we need new vaccines. The Bush administration deserves credit for having had the foresight in 2005 to invest $1 billion in vaccine development—an investment that will soon start paying off. Given that hospital costs during a pandemic could exceed $450 billion, “investing $1 billion in new vaccine techniques is a bargain.”

Unfortunately, we’ve been more focused on bargains than on health, said Lawrence Gostin in The Washington Post. In the U.S., less than 2 percent of health spending goes to “prevention and public health—not nearly enough to ensure preparedness.” A few states have “strong surveillance systems,” but others have virtually none outside of HIV reporting. I’m afraid that faced with a real pandemic, our response would be “sadly lacking.”

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