Thursday, January 7, 2010

H1N1 Flu: The Y2K of this Decade

Do you remember the sky-is-falling furor surrounding the conversion of computers to the 2000s when the incredibly-hyped new millennium was fast-approaching in the late '90s?

I sure do. I was assigned by the San Francisco Examiner to go to San Francisco International Airport on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, to bear witness if Federal Aviation Administration head Jane Garvey's arriving plane fell from the sky come the witching hour, as view-with-alarm Y2K Cassandras said it might. It didn't. Garvey, who was jetting around the skies of the United States all through the night to reassure anxious travelers, continued on her high-flying tour.

With every public pronouncement about H1N1 influenza - the so-called swine flu - I am reminded more and more of the Y2K non-event, which produced very few untoward incidents with computers anywhere. The world's techies tweaked some systems, but in some countries - notably, in the developing world - few or no adjustments were made, and the outcome was the same as in countries that spent a lot of money and time facing down the Y2K threat.

Ten years on, a similar phenomenon is happening with the flu. Public health officials in many nations - at the urging of the World Health Organization and its view-with-alarm director, Hong Kong physician Margaret Chan - have declared H1N1 a worldwide pandemic. From spring 2009 onward, we saw incidents where entire hotels were quarantined, airline passengers and crews took to the skies while wearing surgical masks, schools shut down and travel numbers dipped, due to global fears of the flu.

Back in May, I called this a pandemic of panic, and I believe it was a good call. According to WHO statistics, up to 500,000 people per year die from ordinary seasonal flu. WHO statistics last week put the worldwide number of deaths from H1N1 at 11,500. I don't mean to make light of the tragic, premature deaths of the victims, but looked at rationally and globally, this is a blip on the medical radar.

Chan and other experts warn that the virus could yet mutate in dangerous and unpredictable ways, maybe even joining forces with the truly lethal avian flu virus - H5N1 - so we mustn't lower our guard. Taking common-sense steps to prevent the spread of contagious disease, such as washing hands and covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, is always advisable. Panicking is not. Flu fear is no reason not to travel, not to go to school, not to go to work, not to see friends.

The world's medical laboratories have rolled out enough vaccine for many millions of preventive swine flu shots. Some of that vaccine has gone unused in rich nations, where, Chan allows, the disease seems to have peaked. These countries are contemplating shipping the excess vaccine to poor countries where cases are still rising, such as Egypt, Vietnam and Indonesia.

As for Chan, herself, there is a certain irony. Following months of her warnings and admonitions, we find this tidbit in an Associated Press story filed from WHO headquarters in Geneva and published in the New York Times on Dec. 29:

"Chan acknowledged she had yet to get her own swine flu shot. Only just back from leave, she said she asked her medical service to find out where she can get vaccinated.''

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