Swine Flu: How Worried Should We Be? The new virus has caused anxiety around the world, though sufferers say it feels just like regular flu. Scientists are now asking what we've learned from this outbreak that will help if the virus comes back with a vengeance next year.
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Swine Flu: How Worried Should We Be?

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Swine Flu: How Worried Should We Be?

Swine Flu: How Worried Should We Be?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne. Today in Your Health, we'll hear about using acupuncture for back pain. First, though, let's get an update on swine flu. The World Health Organization meets today in Geneva.

The WHO director general is expected to reveal recommendations on what to do about a swine flu vaccine. The group's members are discussing the epidemic amid reports of a new outbreak in Japan, mostly among teenagers, and news yesterday of the death of an assistant principal in New York.

How worried should you be at this point? NPR's Richard Knox begins with the story of a man who had the flu.

RICHARD KNOX: Todd Johnson works for the World Bank. He picked up the new swine flu virus on a business trip in mid-April.

Mr. TODD JOHNSON (The World Bank): I had gotten back from Mexico on a Saturday, and I came back into work on Monday, felt okay, but then by midday I wasn't feeling very well. And then I, you know, went to a staff meeting - a large departmental meeting, and then I didn't feel well and I went home.

KNOX: As far as he knew, it was just a case of regular old flu.

Mr. JOHNSON: Headache and body aches and fever, unpleasant - not something I would want to wish on my enemies.

KNOX: He could barely get out of bed all week. By Friday, April 24th, he began to put two and two together - Mexico, a new virus, something called swine flu. He called his doctor.

Mr. JOHNSON: And, you know, she was like swine what?

KNOX: As Johnson's symptoms waned, he and his family, who remain well, began to suffer some social side effects of the new flu. His wife, a teacher, was told to go home so she wouldn't infect her students. His daughter was sent home, too. And his son.

Mr. JOHNSON: One he got thrown out of school, the text messages started flowing, and I think within minutes, everybody in his high school knew that it was Milo's dad.

KNOX: Johnson's name never became public, but millions knew of his case.

Mr. JOHNSON: It was basically on every station - on every local news station. A friend of mine did a Google search and there was like 190 articles worldwide on the World Bank employee who had, you know, probable swine flu.

KNOX: Now Todd Johnson wonders what all the fuss was about.

Mr. JOHNSON: In retrospect, it was an overreaction. We know at least the version that was floating around was not that lethal and perhaps not even that infectious.

KNOX: But public health officials say it was no overreaction. Here's Dr. Dan Jernigan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. DAN JERNIGAN (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): What we have is an unusual event here, where a virus has emerged for which there's very little immunity in the population. It's shown that it's very easily spread from person to person.

KNOX: The official number of U.S. cases - 4,700 - is misleading. Jernigan says upwards of 100,000 Americans have probably gotten the swine flu. The nation is having a January flu peak in mid-May. The vast majority of Americans getting infected are under age 18. That's not so odd. But most of those who are severely ill are young, too. That is disconcerting. And officials think this spring is just a harbinger.

Mr. JERNIGAN: We are fully preparing for the return of this particular strain this fall.

KNOX: The problem is how to balance the evidence that this virus is not much different from ordinary flu with the fears of experts who think it might turn out to be dangerous. Dr. Michael Agus of Children's Hospital in Boston is struggling with that puzzle. He's treated several young children who got very sick from the new flu, but he expected a lot more.

Dr. MICHAEL ANGUS (Children's Hospital, Boston): Specialists wax on about how it's going to go underground and then come back in a rage. And that's what we're preparing for. You know, we essentially see this brief episode as having been a test.

KNOX: Prepare for the worst, he says, but hope for the best. There's reason to be optimistic.

Dr. AGUS: Until we learn otherwise, it's reasonable to treat this flu as another flu. I really think at this point we're accumulating very positive and reassuring data.

KNOX: The data seem to say this is a new flu virus that behaves in this country pretty much like seasonal flu, except that young people are more susceptible. But it's clear that figuring out what a new virus is going to do is a very young science. Public health officials have more data than ever before, but they don't yet know what it means.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can get full coverage of the swine flu outbreak at npr.org.

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