Swine flu, otherwise known as "H1N1 influenza A," may have arrived in Maryland, with six likely cases identified in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and other possible cases being tested. But just how dangerous the influenza virus will prove to be here and elsewhere remains to be seen. As of late Thursday there had been one U.S. death attributed to the flu, and experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us to expect more. But they also note that some form of flu hospitalizes hundreds of thousands and kills 36,000 Americans every year.
The questions now facing public health authorities are: Will that number of deaths grow significantly because of swine flu, and what demographic and other characteristics do those hit hardest by this flu strain share? That's why it's important to quickly mobilize to identify and trace the course of every possible case. The more we know about swine flu, the better we can mitigate its effects and better protect ourselves against possible harm.
To that end, the World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level to Phase 5, the next-to-highest level in the worldwide warning system. That alert is intended to spur countries around the world to quickly activate their pandemic preparedness plans - something the United States has already done, distributing doses of flu-fighting vaccine to every state and establishing national and local command centers to monitor the course of the disease and provide assistance where needed.
In Maryland, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene opened its Swine Flu Operation Center in Baltimore this week. The department's Office of Preparedness and Response has begun monitoring and assisting health care partners across Maryland to prepare and respond should the swine flu present a health emergency for state residents.
Already, health care providers have been asked to contact their local health departments and submit samples to the state public health laboratory for testing on all cases of flu-like illness.
Americans should protect themselves and others from the spread of the flu by washing their hands frequently, using tissues for nose-blowing, and staying at home and calling a doctor when they have flu symptoms. What the United States and other governments around the world shouldn't do is close their borders or impose significant restrictions on travel to stop the global spread of the flu, the WHO and American scientists agree. Closing borders would not only fail to stop the virus but also cause significant economic disruptions. Such a move is also dangerous because goods needed in a pandemic are made abroad.
The WHO and American health officials have some other advice. They would like us to call this new flu by its technical name: "H1N1 influenza A." The reason: The name swine flu has been misleading consumers and needlessly causing countries to ban pork products and order the slaughter of pigs.