So some of y’all must be thinkin’ … Whatever happened to that thar’ swine flu thing? Apparently, the World Health Organization is set to issue an alert for a “level 6 pandemic” — the first such designation in 40 years.
Before you start stampeding through the streets in panic, take note:
The declaration of a global epidemic was expected Thursday as WHO officials huddled in an emergency session in Geneva in the wake of 141 swine flu deaths worldwide, including 12 in New York City….
If WHO moves from level 5 to level 6 on its pandemic alert scale, it would be the first flu pandemic declared since the Hong Kong flu killed an estimated 1 million people in 1968.
On Wednesday, WHO reported 27,737 cases worldwide, most of them mild and requiring no treatment.
Are you scratching your head, too? How can a mostly mild H1N1 strain that affects about one-fortieth the number who were killed by the Hong Kong flu evoke the same designation and any meaningful comparison between the two?
As the Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Henninger astutely observes, the term pandemic has lost a meaningful distinction. Henninger’s message not to panic is directed more at governments who issue funding and set priorities than it is for you or me:
After the onset of a genuine pandemic, new recombinant, or genetically engineered, vaccine production methods — which use safe, dead virus — could produce high volumes of vaccine in eight to 12 weeks, rather than the traditional 20 to 23 weeks. (There is only one egg-based vaccine manufacturer in the U.S.)….
Public-health advocates are yelling they haven’t been given enough money. Maybe. Last week the Obama White House asked to use $3 billion of stimulus funds for swine flu, prompting charges the stimulus was turning into a slush fund. Arguably it is, though there are worse walls to throw money at than a killer virus. Hospital respirators are expensive.
The good news is, if we don’t panic and if we allow those vaccines to emerge, we can put up a respectable fight against a really lethal virus. The bad news is, we’ll probably panic.
The indiscriminate use of language and the persistence of media sensationalism not only have the bad habit of needlessly annoying and distressing everyday citizens. They also have the potential of misdirecting precious resources from a genuine emergency. Let’s hope it never happens.