On second thought, don't panic

With Joe Biden keeping his family off of public transportation and Barack Obama giving prime-time hygiene lessons, one might be forgiven for climbing into a bunker while waiting for the first third of Stephen King’s The Stand to unfold.  Instead, people can stand down from panic mode.  Scientists have begun concluding that the latest strain of the swine flu, or H1N1 for those too sensitive to pork, may in fact be less dangerous than normal flu strains we see every year:

As the World Health Organization raised its infectious disease alert level Wednesday and health officials confirmed the first death linked to swine flu inside U.S. borders, scientists studying the virus are coming to the consensus that this hybrid strain of influenza — at least in its current form — isn’t shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics.

In fact, the current outbreak of the H1N1 virus, which emerged in San Diego and southern Mexico late last month, may not even do as much damage as the run-of-the-mill flu outbreaks that occur each winter without much fanfare.

“Let’s not lose track of the fact that the normal seasonal influenza is a huge public health problem that kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone and hundreds of thousands around the world,” said Dr. Christopher Olsen, a molecular virologist who studies swine flu at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison.

That’s exactly what I wrote yesterday.  Apart from Mexico, WHO scientists haven’t seen excess mortality in infected people.  They’re beginning to suspect that a complicating condition exists there, either poorer medical response or another environmental component that creates more fatalities.

It’s still too early to dismiss the danger out of hand, and the lack of a specific vaccine for this strain makes response slower than anyone would like.  However, the amount of panic over the handful of cases worldwide seems all out of proportion, and perhaps nowhere more so than at the White House itself.  Clearly, they wanted a chance to show that they could handle a crisis, and either purposefully or accidentally blew this one into a crisis so severe that Americans had to be warned away from public transport.

The flu causes far too many deaths in the US and around the world, and those at higher risk need to take precautions against exposure.  Let’s keep the overall danger in perspective, though.