Swine flu puts world on alert

Health officials were on high alert after an outbreak of swine flu spread from Mexico to the U.S., Europe, and much of the world.

What happened

Health officials were on high alert this week after an outbreak of swine flu spread from Mexico to the U.S., Europe, and much of the world. The new flu strain is suspected in the deaths of at least 150 people in Mexico, where more than 2,000 have taken ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed at least 90 cases in the U.S., with one fatality—a 2-year-old Mexican boy in Houston. The World Health Organization said that human transmission was spreading and accelerating, and that declaration of a full-scale global pandemic was imminent. The U.S. government prepared stockpiles of antiviral drugs for rapid distribution and stepped up health screenings for people entering the country. “This is obviously a cause for concern,” said President Obama, “but it’s not a cause for alarm.”

The new influenza strain, to which humans have no natural immunity, was transmitted from pigs and contains genetic material from previously known pig, bird, and human viruses. Thus far, it has not proved to be as deadly as some previous animal influenzas, but it could continue to mutate within human hosts. “There is no standard picture for how this will develop,” said WHO official Keiji Fukuda.

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What the editorials said

“Fear of swine flu must not be allowed to become contagious,” said The Christian Science Monitor. The Obama administration is handling its first public health crisis deftly, walking the narrow line between preparing for action and panicking the public. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the 24-hour news media, which has “a commercial interest in peddling fear.”

No one knows how grave a threat this disease really is, said the Chicago Tribune. The swine flu appears more infectious than the dreaded avian flu of a few years ago, but far less deadly to people who catch it. So far, researchers are mystified as to why this flu has taken dozens of young lives in Mexico while causing mostly treatable illness in the U.S. There have been three flu pandemics in the 20th century. The most recent, 40 years ago, killed a million people worldwide, while the 1918 Spanish flu claimed at least 50 million lives. Is this another big one? “The unsatisfying answer: We won’t know for a while.”

What the columnists said

Sometimes, fear has its benefits, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. It was the supposedly overblown bird flu scare several years ago that jolted the world into building a sensitive and effective global health-monitoring system. That paid off this week in Mexico when the government realized that what might have seemed like the common flu was actually a new threat, and communicated that news to the world. “It was a real achievement for authorities to notice a few anomalous deaths and connect the dots.”

The swine flu comes “at a particularly precarious time for the global economy,” said Phil Izzo in The Wall Street Journal Online. The economy here and abroad is just starting to show some signs of life, but if this outbreak turns into a pandemic, the recovery will “wilt” as some offices and industries shut their doors, and consumers avoid airplanes—or any kind of travel—and crowded stores. A 2008 World Bank report warned that a worldwide flu pandemic could cost the global economy $3 trillion, which is a blow we can’t afford right now.

People clamoring for action at all costs should remember “the Great Swine Flu Epidemic of 1976,” said Patrick Di Justo in Salon.com. The government warned that it would kill 1 million Americans and launched a massive immunization campaign. The total actual death toll from swine flu turned out to be one. Unfortunately, some people died or developed paralyzing illnesses after getting the vaccine, which had been hurriedly developed without the usual safeguards.

What next?

Many outbreaks come in waves, and officials said we could be seeing a mild first wave that will be followed by a more severe one when flu season starts, in autumn. “We are probably going to have to live with this virus for a some time,” said infectious-disease specialist Ira Longini. “The name of the game is to slow transmission until a well-matched vaccine can be made and distributed.”

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