Friday, June 12, 2009

Pandemics of Panic II

Yesterday the World Health Organization declared a pandemic status for H1N1 influenza - a bug spread in no small part by global travel - but the organization stopped short of telling people not to travel or endorsing border closings or travel quarantines.

What does that mean for travelers? At this point, not much. Travelers should continue to exercise common sense - not traveling if you're sick, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing your hands frequently - but panicing about the pandemic isn't warranted.

The WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, allowed that the flu, while it has spread rapidly, is so far at least a mild bug for nearly everyone who comes down with it. This latest flu, derived from swine, has as of this writing infected about 28,000 people in 74 countries, killing about 150 people. The 1968 flu pandemic killed about a million people. The infamous 1918-19 influenza tsunami is believed to have killed tens of millions. The advent of better sanitation and improved public health accounts for the dramatically lower number of deaths. As things stand, ordinary seasonal flu already kills about 500,000 people worldwide, according to the WHO.

Although it apparently started in Mexico and quickly spread to the United States, the contagion is taken most seriously in the Asia Pacific region. Australia, which has had a recent outbreak, has ordered some school closings. East Asia, where memories of SARS and the bird flu are strong, has instituted careful measures at airports. When I visited Malaysia and Korea last week, all airline passengers were scanned by walk-through machines that read our temperatures. At Korea's Seoul/Incheon International Airport, screeners passed a small machine behind - not in - passeners' ears as they deplaned. Some airport workers wore surgical masks. Asian airlines have stepped-up scrubbing of their aircraft, and one carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, reports it is replacing used pillows, blankets and headset covers instead of cleaning and re-using them.

In both of the major Asian airports I used, the mood was calm and cautious - and that's as it should be. The virus could yet mutate into a more serious form, and experts say it may return next year. So far, though, we seem to have escaped the worst possible scenario.

Would that things stay that way. As long as they do, don't let the fear of flu - and the P word, pandemic - make you stay at home.

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