Things You Need to Know About the Swine Flu Outbreak
Right now health officials around the world are trying to take precautions without inciting panic from the possible Swine Flu Outbreak. As world government race to contain swine flu (also known as Influenza A H1N1) outbreak, including issuing travel advisory to Mexico, U.S and Canada, we the public should avoid both a pandemic and global hysteria. It's not a time to panic.
In addition, as a precautionary measure, other governments were increasing their screening of pigs and pork imports from the Americas or banning them outright. Here are just a few of the questions facing them — and ultimately, us as well:1. Is this a flu pandemic?
The influenza virus is constantly mutating. That's why we can't get full immunity to the flu, the way we can to diseases like chicken pox, because there are multiple strains of the flu virus and they change from year to year. However, even though the virus makes us sick, our immune systems can usually muster enough of a response so that the flu is rarely fatal for healthy people.
But every once in awhile, the virus shifts its genetic structure so much that our immune systems offer no protection whatsoever. (This usually happens when a flu virus found in animals — like the avian flu still circulating in Asia — swaps genes with other viruses in a process called reassortment, and jumps to human beings.) A flu pandemic occurs when a new flu virus emerges for which humans have little or no immunity and then spreads easily from person to person around the world.2. What will happen if this outbreak gets classified as a pandemic?
Moving the world to pandemic phase 4 would be the signal for serious containment actions to be taken on the national and international level. Given that these actions would have major implications for the global economy, not to mention the effects of the public fear that would ensue, there is concern that the WHO may be considering politics along with science.
Of course, declaring a pandemic isn't a decision that should be taken lightly. For the WHO, phase 4 might trigger an attempt to keep the virus from spreading by instituting strict quarantines and blanketing infected areas with antivirals. But we appear to have missed the opportunity to contain the disease at its source since the virus is already crossing borders with ease.3. Why have the U.S. cases been so much milder than the ones in Mexico?
This is the question that has health officials from Geneva to Washington puzzled. In Mexico, swine flu has caused severe respiratory disease in a number of patients — and even more worryingly, has killed the sort of young and healthy people who can normally shrug off the flu.
Yet the cases in the U.S. have all been mild and likely wouldn't have even garnered much attention if doctors hadn't begun actively looking for swine flu in recent days.
Some of the difference may be due to the fact that Mexico has apparently been grappling with swine flu for weeks longer than the U.S. As doctors across the U.S. begin checking patients with respiratory symptoms for swine flu, CDC officials expect to see more severe cases in the U.S. as well — and as better epidemiological work is done in Mexico, we'll probably hear about more mild cases there too. Right now, however, the true severity of the H1N1 swine flu virus is still an open question, whose answer could change over time.4. How ready is the U.S. — and the world — to respond to a flu pandemic?
In some ways, the world is better prepared for a flu pandemic today than it has ever been. Thanks to concerns over H5N1 avian flu, the WHO, the U.S. and countries around the world have stockpiled millions of doses of antivirals that can help fight swine flu as well as other strains of influenza. The U.S. has a detailed pandemic preparation plan that was drafted under former President George W. Bush. Many other countries have similar plans. SARS and bird flu have given international health officials useful practice runs for dealing with a real pandemic. We can identify new viruses faster than ever before, and we have life-saving technologies — like artificial respirators and antivirals
At the same time, the very nature of globalization puts us at greater risk. International air travel means that infections can spread very quickly. And while the WHO can prepare a new swine flu vaccine strain in fairly short order, we still use a laborious, decades-old process to manufacture vaccines, meaning it would take months before the pharmaceutical industry could produce its full capacity of doses — and even then, there wouldn't be enough for everyone on the planet.5. So how scared should we be?
That depends on whom you ask. Officials at the CDC and the WHO have emphasized that while the swine flu situation is serious, they're responding with an abundance of precautions.
Outside of Mexico, the swine flu hasn't looked too serious yet — unlike during the SARS outbreaks of 2003, when an entirely new virus with no obvious treatment took the world by surprise.
And there are simple things that people can do to protect themselves, like practicing better hygiene (wash hands frequently and cover mouth and nose when sneezing) and staying away from public places or traveling if they feel sick.
But the truth is that every outbreak is unpredictable, and there's a lot we don't know yet about the new swine flu. There hasn't been a flu pandemic for more than a generation, and there hasn't been a truly virulent pandemic since long before the arrival of mass air transit.
Panic would be counterproductive — especially if it results in knee-jerk reactions like closing international borders, which would only complicate the public-health response. But neither should we downplay our very real vulnerabilities. As Napolitano put it: "This will be a marathon, not a sprint." Be prepared.