Swine Flu to Be Declared a Pandemic–But It's Not as Bad as It Might Sound

By Eliza Strickland | June 10, 2009 2:35 pm

H1N1 mapThe World Health Organization is expected to officially classify the ongoing H1N1 swine flu outbreak as a pandemic in the next couple of days, but health officials are taking pains to stress that the “pandemic” label only indicates that the virus is spreading through communities in more than one region of the globe–it does not mean that the virus is killing everyone in its path.

WHO official Keiji Fukuda explains: “It does not mean that the severity of the situation has increased or that people are getting seriously sick at higher numbers or higher rates than they are right now…. One of the critical issues is that we do not want people to ‘over-panic’ if they hear that we are in a pandemic situation” [Reuters].

The alert level is currently still set at 5, indicating that the virus is spreading from person to person in one geographic region, and that a pandemic is imminent. So far, over 26,500 people have been infected worldwide and about 140 have died of swine flu. Australia has reported a sharp rise in cases since last week — to 1,260 by late Wednesday. Australian authorities say many cases cannot be traced back to travelers or common infection sites such as schools, indicating that — like in Mexico, the United States and Canada — the virus is becoming entrenched in communities [AP]. The number of cases has also spiked in countries Britain, Spain, and Japan, suggesting that the virus is taking hold in several different regions. Officials also believe that many more people around the world have been infected with mild cases, but that they didn’t feel ill enough to get tested for the H1N1 virus.

WHO officials worry that a pandemic declaration will lead people with mild illnesses to overwhelm emergency rooms. “In earlier outbreaks, we have often seen that people who are in the category of being worried, but who are not particularly sick, have overrun hospitals,” Fukuda said [Los Angeles Times].

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Image: WHO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Shawn

    How do we know this pandemic won’t be as bad as others in the past? It could be worse, it could be mild. It seems like there isn’t enough information to speculate yet. I know some places in northern Canada (Manitoba) and some places in southern Chile (Region X) have experienced severe outbreaks. If these severe strains spread, then all of the information we have about the current outbreak might need to be revised.

  • Brian M

    It might be more or less serious than past pandemics, all we really have to go on right now is the fact that 26,500 were infected with only 140 confirmed deaths. So, not that it’s good news if you were one of the 140 but on the whole it seems pretty low on the lethality scale.

  • Sundance

    So panicking is just fine, but ‘over-panicking’ would be bad?

  • blodo

    Ummm…to-date Canada has experienced exactly four deaths. The outbreak is worst in northern communities on First Nations reserses where health is already compromised. Not to be too glib, but bee stings do in more people a year than this strain of flu has.

  • Jon B

    Ditto blodo. Worldwide mortality rate to date: 0.05%. In the US, 0.02%. Get a grip, everyone. This is nothing to worry about too much.

  • Brian

    I feel that there’s a public communications problem here.

    The WHO officials, probably with the best intentions, are using language bound to alarm the public. They need to change this, and not with lame “a pandemic doesn’t mean it’s bad” explanations.

    When I heard “pandemic” and “alert level 6 (out of 6!!)” I wondered what the heck they were doing? The mortality for this disease is low, really low. There’s nothing in this outbreak that justifies this language, and these alert levels, I’m sorry.

    The world has a nasty history with pandemics. Every time the flu topic comes up, someone raises the subject of the 1918 outbreak. Polio was a major threat within living memory even within developed countries. The Black Death still gets people’s attention, all these centuries later.

    The WHO needs to modify their language, their communications with citizens, and maybe their threat assessment system, in my opinion. Maybe they think the POTENTIAL of this outbreak justifies their actions. OK, I can accept potential. However potential isn’t actual. You don’t sound the alarm when someone smokes a cigarette, you sound it when there’s a fire.

    Otherwise they risk being the organization that cried Wolf. When the time comes that they really need the public’s attention, they may have to overcome scepticism about their message. And they don’t need that problem in the middle of a real pandemic.

  • Dj Shoeman

    I agree with alot of you why would they classify this a pandemic with only 140 confirmed deaths????? Is it just to scare people come on….. Me and my Friend honastly beleave that the swine flu was man made and purposly released in a attempt to drop the population levels i mean come on this flu is attacking young children young adults and pregant women how can this not be a way to lower population levels??????

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