[/caption]Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the pandemic alert level to Phase 5, its second-highest level, the level just before a full-blown pandemic phase. Today, just before posting to this blog, there are 226 U.S. human cases of H1N1 flu infection, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As the CDC reports, since January of this year, 13,000 people in the U.S. have died from the regular flu – while, as of this writing, only one person in the U.S. has died of swine flu.
Why did the health experts jump to Phase 5 on swine flu? The answer is that these experts – who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe – have a system, and they’re trying to follow it. Here’s the official definition of Phase 5, from the WHO. Phase 5 is “characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”
And here’s a statement by WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, issued on April 29. Among many other things, Chan said, “Let me remind you. New diseases are, by definition, poorly understood. Influenza viruses are notorious for their rapid mutation and unpredictable behavior.”
Viruses mutate. Conditions can change quickly. Is a pandemic imminent, as a Phase 5 alert level suggests? At this writing, the WHO has not lowered the alert level. No one knows what will happen.
Marsha Canright, director of media relations at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston explained other factors that set off the current concern about the H1N1 virus. Swine flu, she said, “has that ‘red flag’ characteristic of attacking young, strong people unlike a more typical flu which is … more likely to cause death in the very old and very young.”
Attacking able-bodied young people was a characteristic of the Spanish Flu – caused by a particularly deadly and virulent strain of the H1N1 virus – in 1918. The Spanish Flu caused the last major pandemic, which began in March of 1918 and raged around the globe for about two years, killing as many as 100 million – or more than twice the number of people killed in World War I.
Canright also said, “Concerns about this new swine flu (at least from scientists here) are that people lack any real immunity from the strain so we don’t get the pleasant benefits of herd immunity or protection from past vaccines, as far as we know … Scientists are starting to look at the molecular makeup of this flu and hope to find similarities with existing vaccines. It takes time to grow a vaccine and they need to get on it …”
Health experts say a serious and deadly pandemic is inevitable, but this particular strain of swine flu has not been very deadly so far. Again, as of today, 226 have been affected in the U.S., with only one death. If this flu does not cause a deadly pandemic, then are steps being taken by the WHO and CDC a waste of time? Are they just trying to scare us? Is it a left-winged government plot? Or could it be a dress rehearsal for a real pandemic?
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.