Tuesday, 5 May 2009

What happens if swine flu goes away?

Tue May 5, 2009 2:45am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Mexico saying the worst may be over and the new H1N1 virus starting to look more like a seasonal flu strain in the United States and elsewhere, critics are going to start asking if public health officials overreacted to the outbreak.

Since the new swine flu virus was first identified two weeks ago in two children in Texas and California, the World Health Organization pushed its pandemic alert level from a three to a five, meaning a pandemic is imminent.

Mexico closed schools, stopped public events and took a big hit to tourism. The U.S. government mobilized 25 percent of its stockpile of antiviral drugs and started work on a vaccine against the new strain.

But the death toll is being rolled back as Mexican officials realize it will be impossible to know if long-buried or cremated victims died of H1N1 swine flu. And while the infection is spreading rapidly across the United States, it appears to be no worse than seasonal flu.

Scientists who study flu say the coordinated, global response was appropriate.

"If it doesn't become more virulent, first of all, many people will heave a great sigh of relief," said Dr. Scott Lillibridge, who helped set up the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program and who is now at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston.

But Lillibridge echoes what the WHO and CDC have been saying: viruses mutate and change all the time and it is too early to say how bad this virus really is.

"We are only a few days into a major international mobilization for an outbreak that could continue months into the future," Lillibridge said in a telephone interview.

The U.S. government has been preparing for this scenario for years.

One of the messages that has come up repeatedly is that the 1918 pandemic, cited as the worst-case scenario because it killed upwards of 40 million people, started with a mild arrival of a new virus, now identified as H1N1, in the spring.

It disappeared over the summer, but roared back with a vengeance in August.

REPEATING HISTORY

"Will there be later disease, and if so, will it be more severe?" CDC acting director Dr. Richard Besser asked on Monday.

"There is no doubt in my mind that CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Health and Human Services Department will use the lull to get ready," said risk communications consultant Peter Sandman, who has taken a special interest in pandemic flu.

"They will stay focused on this problem. They will continue to get ready for a possible pandemic in the fall.".....

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