The Good News About The Flu

Swine flu virus i i

There's a good side to this?: A negative-stained image of the swine flu virus. Center for Disease Control and Prevention/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Center for Disease Control and Prevention/AP
Swine flu virus

There's a good side to this?: A negative-stained image of the swine flu virus.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention/AP
Douglas Kamerow

Douglas Kamerow is a family physician and chief scientist at the research institute, RTI International. He is a former assistant surgeon general. Jimmy Crawford, RTI hide caption

itoggle caption Jimmy Crawford, RTI

There is actually a lot of good news about this new swine flu outbreak. First and foremost, our public health systems — local, state, national and international — have already found out a lot about the virus. We know that it is a new version of swine flu that has genetic pieces from human, bird and swine flu viruses. Development of a vaccine to protect people against it is under way. And we know that the swine flu virus is sensitive to some of the antiviral medicines that we have been stockpiling for an occasion such as this.

Second, we have much improved surveillance and communication systems, at least in the U.S., so everyone knows what's going on. Now, some news outlets are going overboard with scary headlines and ominous music, but in general, we're getting informative and helpful updates from government agencies of the latest news and advice. I think they have struck just about the right tone of "concern but not alarm."

Third, this outbreak is starting late in the winter respiratory infection season, so we won't have a big problem distinguishing swine flu cases from standard flu or other viruses.

Finally, we have learned from 9/11, Katrina, SARS and the avian flu scare. We are better prepared than ever before to prevent, diagnose and treat influenza with individual actions, public health measures, antiviral medications and supportive treatments.

All of which is not to say that we shouldn't be concerned. But here are a few things you don't need to worry about. Some people are making a big deal of the fact that we don't have a longstanding Health and Human Services secretary or a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director yet. You don't have to worry about that. There are plenty of capable career employees minding the store who know what they're doing. On a personal level, you don't need to wear a face mask. You don't have to worry that you didn't get a flu shot last fall; it probably wouldn't have helped much anyway. And you don't have to stay home, keep your kids home or stay away from other people, unless you're sick.

What should we worry about? That if this infection does spread worldwide we won't have enough medicines and respirators and facilities to take care of everyone. That the virus might increase in severity before we have time to manufacture a lot of vaccine. And that people may panic if and when serious illnesses and deaths start to occur.

Some day, the next worldwide influenza pandemic will strike. This could be it. We're not going to know that for a while. But if it is, and if it's like previous pandemics, it will spread in waves, some mild and some more serious. Either way, we'll be going into it reasonably well prepared.

So, stay calm, get a bottle of hand sanitizer and some tissues to cough or sneeze into. Use them both. Wash your hands with soap or sanitize them before you eat. Don't go to Mexico City if you don't have to. And sit tight.

Douglas Kamerow is a family physician and a former assistant surgeon general. He is a chief scientist at the research institute, RTI International.

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