Was the Alarm over Swine Flu Justified?

Like a patient suffering from a particularly tenacious case of, well, the flu, the H1N1 virus seemed to gain ground and lose it over the weekend, leaving health officials still cautious, but hopeful that the disease might be on the wane. The number of confirmed infections continues to rise, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting 898 infections in 18 countries as of May 3, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tallying 226 confirmed cases in 30 states. The continuing spread led Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to predict on Sunday that the WHO might soon raise its pandemic alert level from phase 5 to the highest stage, phase 6, which would indicate that a full flu pandemic was underway. “The virus has arrived, I would say, in most of the country now,” said Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for science and public health at the CDC.

By Bryan Walsh
Time Magazine


But there have still been no deaths and few serious cases reported outside Mexico – and even there, in the epicenter of the H1N1 outbreak, officials reported that the spread has slowed. As labs slogged through the backlog of suspected H1N1 flu cases, the number of confirmed cases and deaths dropped precipitously, indicating that the initial outbreak that so alarmed world health officials might not have been as serious as first feared. (See the top 5 swine-flu don’ts.)


As a global network of flu experts began to take a good look at the genetic structure of the new H1N1 virus, there were also indications that the bug might turn out to be little more dangerous than an average flu. Though scientists can’t say exactly what genes make a particular strain of the flu unusually deadly, all of the viruses that triggered pandemics over the past century – the catastrophic 1918 flu, but also the 1957 and 1968 pandemics – had a particular mutation in the gene that makes a protein called PB1-F2. The H1N1 swine-flu virus also seems to lack mutations that make the especially virulent H5N1 avian flu, which has killed more than half of the people with confirmed infections. (See pictures of how Mexico has been affected by swine flu.)

Read the rest from Times Magazine:


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