Josh D. Weiss/AP
Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
Disease, gives an update about swine flu during a press conference.

H1N1 Declared a Pandemic, But Should We Worry?

June 12, 2009 06:00 PM
by Cara McDonough
The World Health Organization has announced that the first flu pandemic since 1968 is underway. But the announcement relates to the virus' worldwide spread, not its virulence.

Swine Flu Alert Raised to Level 6

In its announcement on Thursday, the WHO advised government agencies that preparation for a long-term battle with the virus known as swine flu is in order. The agency raised its pandemic alert to 6 on a six-point scale.

"Based on past experience, this pandemic will be with us for some months, if not years, to come," WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan wrote in a letter to her staff, quoted by Reuters.

Although health officials want the public to be aware, they also worry the word "pandemic" could cause uncessecary panic. WHO has urged member countries not to close borders or restrict travel in light of their announcement.

"The move to phase 6 reflects the fact that the disease, widely known as swine flu, is spreading geographically, but does not indicate how virulent it is," reports Reuters. H1N1 Influenza A has shown up in all 50 states. Its widespread transmission in Australia demonstrates its prevalence in a region besides North America, and was one of the main reasons for moving to phase six.

Forbes explored the meaning of the WHO's announcement and reported that as of June 11, the organization has counted 28,774 cases and 144 deaths in 74 countries.

Many experts are assuring the public that the level 6 announcement simply confirms the obvious, according to Forbes. "They're just confirming what we already know," Dr. Martin Blaser, an infectious-disease expert at Langone Medical Center of New York University, told Forbes. "It is a pandemic; it has been spreading all over the world."

WHO stated that the virus is currently in a somewhat stable form, but could become more deadly if it mixes with other flu strains. The agency says people who are 30-50 years of age, pregnant women and those with health conditions such as obesity, asthma and diabetes are most susceptible to the virus.

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Opinion & Analysis: Who is most at risk?

When officials were first observing the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, they noted that cases were mostly reported in healthy adults—scarily similar to the 1918 Spanish flu.

And yet in the United States, the most serious cases have occurred in people with underlying health conditions. The mysterious nature of the virus' transmission proves there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to H1N1.

Why have so many serious U.S. cases featured underlying health conditions? It may be too soon to tell. Dr. Michael W. Smith, medical editor-in-chief of WebMD, wrote for that certain people are simply more likely to suffer complications from swine flu—or any flu—and therefore are “more likely to get very ill, require hospitalization, and more likely to die.” Those people include children, pregnant women, people 50 years old and older, and people with certain medical conditions, such as lung or heart disease or those with weak immune systems.

Other experts believe that older adults may be less susceptible to the swine flu because they may have come into contact with a similar flu strain years ago, and therefore are immune to this one.

Background: Swine flu panic

Although swine flu stormed into the media when cases began to spread in Mexico, the U.S. and around the world, many experts said, and continue to say, that panic is premature and unnecessary.

The regular flu—whatever strain is prevalent that year—affects between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population each year, and about 36,000 people die. So far, the H1N1 virus hasn’t even come close to approaching those numbers.

"Let's not lose track of the fact that the normal seasonal influenza is a huge public health problem that kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone and hundreds of thousands around the world," Dr. Christopher Olsen, a molecular virologist who studies swine flu at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times in April. He added that any death is “heartbreaking,” but that we “do need to keep this in perspective.”

Reference: Sites for understanding H1N1 and pandemics


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