No Cause For Panic

Our View: Coordinating The Response To A Threatened Swine Flu Pandemic Will Be A Major Test Of The Obama Administration's Ability To Manage A Public Health Crisis

August 28, 2009

There is now little doubt the nation will experience a widespread -and perhaps severe - outbreak of the H1N1 virus this fall, traditionally the flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. Experts are still uncertain how virulent this particular flu strain, which has been circulating through the Southern Hemisphere in recent months, will be when it comes back our way, and they are monitoring it carefully for mutations that might render it more deadly. So far, there's no indication of that; according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although H1N1 does spread easily, it remains a relatively mild strain of influenza.

Yet the likelihood of a massive outbreak understandably has alarmed the public. Reports earlier this week suggested that up to half the population could be infected with the H1N1virus in the coming year, with as many as 90,000 deaths - more than double the number that occur in an average flu season. But those warnings were quickly followed by more reports stressing that the figures cited represented a worst-case scenario and that the actual effects of the disease could be much less severe. There's even a chance this year's outbreak won't differ significantly from other flu seasons.

At the moment, perhaps the most worrisome threat on the horizon for even a mild flu outbreak is that it could overwhelm the nation's health care system and the limited number of available hospital beds. White House experts say that, if the worst comes to pass, it is possible 60 million to 120 million people could come down with flu symptoms and up to 300,000 could require hospitalization in intensive care units. That would tie up virtually all the beds in some parts of the country when the epidemic was at its peak. And because the virus strikes particularly hard among pregnant women and children, there's also concern there may not be enough capacity in the nation's specialized pediatric hospitals to meet demand.

These are all serious considerations, but they do not warrant panic. Inevitably, much misinformation about the virus has gained currency - that pigs at state fairs pose a danger, for example, or that anyone who comes down with flu symptoms should immediately go to a hospital. Yet for most people the virus will not be life-threatening, and the danger of infection can be minimized through simple public hygiene, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water, avoiding work or school when sick and staying home for at least 24 hours after a fever goes away.

The government is right to prepare for the worst, but it must hew to a fine line between ensuring adequate supplies of vaccine and keeping the public informed while not overreacting in ways that encourage hysteria.

No administration wants to be blamed for being unprepared. But if things go better than expected, the White House doesn't want to be accused of exaggerating the threat either. Given the circumstances, the president and his team may face some tough choices ahead, but "better safe than sorry" is still sound policy. Whether or not the Obama administration can implement that policy will provide the first major test of its ability to effectively manage a potential public health crisis.

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