Swine flu: WHO treads between alertness – and a scare

By , International news editor

Swine flu scare?

We’ve been there before.

In 1976, a soldier in Fort Dix New Jersey died after being diagnosed with swine flu. The base was quarantined. In the panic that followed, the US government sponsored a $135 million immunization program. About 40 million Americans got flu shots before the program was shelved. No one else died.

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More recently, the Asian bird flu and severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) captured the media’s attention. Yes, there were hundreds of deaths related to SARS. There’s no question that in both outbreaks Asian governments tried initially to hide a serious problem. But the fear of a global pandemic leading to hundreds of thousands dead never panned out.

As a matter of context, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that an estimated 36,000 people die each year in the US from flu or flu-related illnesses – and about 90 percent of those deaths are people over the age of 65.

The current concern over reported cases of swine flu in Mexico, the US, and Europe are not to be taken lightly. As many as 81 people have seen their family members die in Mexico. No deaths, to date, have been attributed to the disease elsewhere.

But this situation poses a familiar problem for public health officials: How to properly warn people without sowing panic – or undermining their credibility if there is no pandemic?

The Monitor wrote about this in 2005, “When warnings become a scare.

"We need an informed concern - that's different than fear," says Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and author of a book on global epidemics. The difficulty, he says, is "how not to play Chicken Little. Because if you keep saying the sky is falling, and the sky isn't falling, people don't listen to you after three years."

On Saturday, some two dozen flu experts advised the World Health Organization (WHO) on what steps to take. They advised against raising the pandemic alert level. On a scale of 1 (low risk of human cases) to 6 (sustained transmission between humans), it now stands at 3.

They didn’t raise it because they don’t know enough about the current cases.

“We need more epidemiological evidence from Mexico before the experts would be in a position to advise on a pandemic change,” a WHO spokesman told Reuters.

The experts plan to convene again on Tuesday to advise to the WHO.

What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic? Click here

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