Posts Tagged ‘National Institute of Respiratory Dieseases’

The WHO Raise the Alert on Swine Flu

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

In a 24/7 media world, virtually everyone has now heard of the H1N1 – or swine – flu that is popping up in countries as distant as Peru and Switzerland. If they haven’t, they now surely will. World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan has declared a phase 5 alert – which raises the warning to the level of advising nations to prepare for a pandemic — after consulting with international flu experts.swine-flu

This alert might strike some people as alarmist, given that “regular” flu kills 36,000 Americans every year – compared with the single death so far we’ve seen in the United States and the 13 confirmed deaths worldwide so far in the current outbreak. But looking at it more closely, the WHO’s preemptive strike may be motivated more by historical fact than today’s news. The Spanish Influenza of 1918 – 1920, which arrived in a similar time frame, infected 28 percent of all Americans; an estimated 675,000 Americans died of the disease and about 50 million across the globe.  Clearly, this was a different order of pandemic at a time when the global health system was recovering from WWI and ill-equipped to deal with the emergency. But where it bears some resemblance to swine flu is that the first wave of flu appeared early in the spring of 1918. It disappeared over the summer, with the second wave arriving in Boston in September of 1918. With the number of cases expected to grow into the thousands, according to the chief at Mexico City’s National Institute of Respiratory Diseases’ Center for the Investigation of Infectious Diseases in Mexico City, the WHO’s response is understandable and responsible.

The one concern is on behalf of our already burdened health system.  Raising the alert level puts pressure on our emergency rooms especially as people are likely to interpret any flu-like symptoms as signs of H1N1 flu. This is when communication with the public is critical. Representatives of the CDC should be using the copious air time they’re being given not only to report on the level of the contagion but to educate the public about its symptoms and to calm fears.