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Panic and hype have reached pandemic levels

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 05, 2009 7:26 AM

People with runny noses, congestion, or a bad cough can be a common sight in spring. Along with sunnier days, the occasional rainy day, and warmer temperatures, spring allergies are a rite of passage — oddly, a sign of good things to come. Unfortunately, allergies aren’t the only things giving people runny noses this spring.

A couple of weeks ago, reports of a “new, exotic” disease infecting people in Mexico caught the world’s attention as if it were a baby in a well or a party girl gone missing in Aruba. The Mexican government initially reported around 150 deaths from the dreaded “swine flu,” as well as thousands more infected. It even prompted the government to shut down most of Mexico City until officials could control the contagion. Soon, other countries reported outbreaks. As of Monday, the World Health Organization listed on its website 21 countries with confirmed cases of influenza A (H1N1) — the scientific name for the flu. Worldwide, there are 1,085 officially reported cases, prompting the WHO to raise its pandemic level from level four to five. Its scale tops out at six.

Governments’ responses have varied around the globe, with some countries taking drastic steps in dealing with the virus. The French government recommended an EU-wide travel ban to and from the Americas. A hotel in Hong Kong is under full quarantine when authorities learned occupants were infected with the new flu after leaving Mexico. The Egyptian government has ordered farmers to exterminate the entire pig population. The Russian and Chinese governments imposed trade restrictions on pork imports from the Americas.

This is a severe overreaction, given the scope and danger the H1N1 virus (which was originally called swine flu) presents to the world. Yes it is alarming that the flu was able to infect as many areas as it has, but the degree of infection is so slight that such drastic actions as culling entire pig populations or imposing trade restrictions on pork or quarantine people arriving from Mexico do more harm than good.

The WHO has confirmed only 26 deaths, 25 of them in Mexico. One of the reasons the initial fatalities coming out of Mexico were so high could be from misdiagnosis. Seasonal flu reaches Mexico about this time, and it is a much more lethal strain. In the United States alone, the seasonal flu may kill between 30,000 and 35,000 people in a year. The symptoms are similar, so it is understandable that Mexican officials misreported fatalities from the “new” flu.

Culling pig herds and imposing trade restrictions on pork products is not only an overreaction but a futile attempt. According to both the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s impossible to contract “swine” flu from eating pork products and nearly impossible to contract the flu directly from pigs. It’s even a misnomer to label it “swine” flu. This particular strain of H1N1 is really what scientists call a chimera — a combination of three strains of the flu: swine, human, and avian. At this point, it’s unknown how much of the virus is made up of swine flu as opposed to the avian and human flu. It is quite common for viruses such as the flu to naturally mutate and even combine with other viruses. That is how they jump from one species to another. “Swine” flu wouldn’t be able to infect humans if it didn’t contain genetic material from human flu.

It seems foolish, in a light of these numbers and facts, to react as many have. While potential pandemics shouldn’t be taken lightly, there is no need to panic. We encourage Americans to follow flu updates closely but not to pay too much attention the hype and panic which has become commonplace on television and in newspapers over the past few weeks.


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