Swine flu scenario

The report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the nation's readiness for the approaching resurgence of the swine flu certainly grabbed our attention.

While it praised the Obama administration's efforts, it laid out a frightening scenario. Half the U.S. population could become infected with the H1N1 virus. Up to 1.8 million people could be hospitalized. And as many as 90,000 could die. That's more than double the number who die of seasonal flu. But when you're perusing the 86-page report, there are two key statements to keep in mind: "this is a planning scenario, not a prediction" and "the 2009-H1N1 virus does not thus far seem to show the virulence associated with the devastating pandemic of 1918-19."

Swine flu burst onto the scene in Mexico in April and quickly spread around the globe. The World Health Organization reports that as of last week there have been more than 182,000 confirmed cases and 1,799 deaths attributable to H1N1 in 177 countries. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 7,983 hospitalizations and 522 deaths in the United States caused by swine flu.

While the WHO classifies the H1N1 virus as a phase 6 pandemic because of its reach, it takes great pains to point out that in terms of severity, the pandemic is "moderate" because people generally recover without the need for hospitalization or medical care.

Where there is justifiable concern is over who is susceptible to becoming infected. Unlike seasonal influenza, which strikes the elderly and others with weak immune systems, the swine flu has sickened healthy, young adults. With the new school year upon us, the potential for rapid spread of swine flu — and the educational and economic disruption that come with it — is high. Another area of concern is whether enough vaccine will be ready and available for those most likely to become infected. Mid-October is the forecast for having 45 million to 52 million doses of vaccine available. That's when swine flu infection is expected to be at its peak. The administration is pushing the five vaccine manufacturers to speed production of an initial batch that would be available by next month and given to the most vulnerable age and disease groups, such as diabetics.

It remains true that there is no reason to panic. Scientists tracking the swine flu's spread across the Southern Hemisphere have not detected a mutation that would make it more dangerous. This is good news. Until a vaccine is widely available, you are your best protection against H1N1. Wash your hands. Cover your cough or sneeze. Stay home if you're sick and keep your children home if they are sick. And for more information go to www.flu.gov.

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