Let’s not go overboard on swine flu

Posted on April 27, 2009

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I know there’s a lot of dire coverage right now regarding the outbreak of swine flu both here in America and in Mexico, the latter of which has caused 100 deaths and prompted the near-shutdown of Mexico City. And though a level of caution is always warranted, let’s take a few deep breaths.

First, it’s helpful to realize that the cases in the US appear to be much milder than those of Mexico, and that all of the cases seem to be able to be linked directly back to Mexico, making it more likely to be contained within our own country. And while we should be on the lookout for possible contagion, the same advice always applies and appears to be the best in this case – wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, and practice good general hygiene.

I’m always a bit wary when health officials throw around the word “pandemic” – it’s done far too frequently and does nothing but unnecessarily stoke the fears of a public largely uneducated on the details of microbiology and public health. I’m likewise reminded that the same specious attention-grabbing charge of “possible pandemic” was made about avian flu, about SARS, about West Nile virus … you get the picture.

A lot of this is the fault of the media – I saw a local broadcast practically screaming that they had found coagulase-negative staphylococcus on local produce! What they left out was that coag-negative staph is normal flora of the skin. And there is the hyping of MRSA as a killer superbug when the reality is that it’s isolated quite often in patient specimens, and while noone wants it, it can be treated by several antibiotics. Take me at my word on this one – I work in a microbiology lab by day. (And provide the cutting analysis you all enjoy by night! Just kidding.)

So I would urge you to exercise caution if politicians or health officials try to scare you with the threat of an impending swine flu pandemic. (And likewise be wary if politicians try to use this scare as a political wedge issue.) It’s worth keeping your eyes on, but at this point, I don’t see much of a massive threat to public welfare.

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Posted in: News