In Mexico, which is the epicenter of the swine flu outbreak, there have been 12 confirmed deaths. In the United States, there’s been one. In a normal flu season, about 36,000 Americans die, and yet there is no panic. Nor should there be now.
It’s true that this strain is different, because it is transmitted from pigs to humans and it can throttle generally healthy people. It’s also true that there is no vaccine. But the treatment and precautions are the same for typical influenzas. Stay home if you have symptoms. Keep the kids home from school if they’re feeling ill. Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing, but preferably not with your hand. Wash hands and common surfaces thoroughly.
Public health experts have long predicted that there will be another large flu pandemic someday, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this flu does not contain genetic markers that would tie it to the strain that killed millions in 1918. Meantime, preparation and mobilization make sense, and that’s what public health officials and a variety of government agencies are doing.
Because this strain is more mysterious, there is a tendency to make it more fearsome than it really is. Melodramatic media coverage hasn’t helped. Better safe than sorry, but some safety measures seem overboard. Many school districts around the country have shut down, including six on the West Side that have probable swine flu cases. But many schools elsewhere were shuttered without evidence. Egypt is in the process of slaughtering all 300,000 of its pigs, even though there have been no reported cases in the country.
It didn’t help when Vice President Joe Biden lost his head on Thursday and told NBC’s “Today” that he’s telling his family to avoid confined places, such as planes, trains and automobiles. When asked where they could go, he replied that the “middle of a field” was safe.
The one fatality in the United States was a 23-month-old Mexican child in Texas. But as Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the New York Times, “Every year we see between 75 and 150 children die of flu, most of whom were previously healthy.”
Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed locally, where no confirmed cases had been reported as of Friday afternoon, though there is one probable case. Statewide, there are 16 probable cases. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says there are no plans yet to open the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
“There really is no need to panic. The worst thing we can do is panic,” Knezovich said on Thursday.
There’s been some talk locally that this weekend’s Bloomsday Run might be canceled, but that would be an overreaction. The Spokane Regional Health District has said the race should go on, but participants should stay home if they feel ill.
That’s sage advice for everyone regardless of the flu strain.