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Swine Flu: We Went a Little Crazy But We Didn't Die

Today, Harper's takes a look back at the swine flu hysteria that dominated the week of April 27th: "Swine flu, renamed under pork-lobby...

Today, Harper's takes a look back at the swine flu hysteria that dominated the week of April 27th:"Swine flu, renamed under pork-lobby pressure to ‘influenza A (H1N1) virus, human,' and referred to as ‘killer Mexican flu' by anti-immigration activists, had infected 985 people, or 0.0000145 percent of the world's population. Twenty countries reported infections; one death from the flu was confirmed in the United States; and 25 people had died in Mexico, where a cute five-year-old boy named Edgar Hernandez was presented to the media as ‘patient zero.' Mexico shut down for five days to contain the illness, China began to quarantine Mexicans, and Vice President Joe Biden appeared on television and counseled U.S. citizens to avoid airplanes, subways, and classrooms, which led to protests by the travel industry. ‘I think the vice president misrepresented what the vice president wanted to say,' explained Press Secretary Robert Gibbs."Sounds crazy, right? Only 0.0000145 of the population infected? Wow, Joe Biden sure did overreact.Now that the swine flu scare is ebbing, Harper's won't be the only voice mocking what looks, in retrospect, like an embarrassing collective loss of composure. The media was dominated by swine flu stories, many of them a little crazed, last week. Here's what it looked like in terms of Google searches for "swine flu."


It's easy to see this as an example of media-fueled hysteria, as Harper's seems to do. And complaining about the reactions of cable news, or Joe Biden, is fair. (But who'd expect carefully moderated statements from either of them anyway?)The more important point is that the reaction from public health officials was good. Here's a quick refresher: On April 14th, the CDC received a specimen of a mysterious flu strain from a boy in San Diego. A second San Diego specimen came in soon thereafter. The CDC knew there was a new and unusual flu in San Diego. A few days earlier, Mexican health officials had warned the CDC that they were seeing a deadly "unexplained respiratory illness." The CDC began to investigate whether there was a connection between the San Diego flu and the Mexican outbreak. On April 23, the CDC confirmed that they were the same "swine flu," that it posed an unknown (but potentially serious) risk, and convened a teleconference with public health authorities from all 50 states.Swine flu spread pretty quickly. By the end of the week there were confirmed cases in New York, Europe, China, and beyond. The number of deaths has been low, but if the strain had been really bad, it would be a different story. More importantly, it took time to figure out that this swine flu wasn't so bad. In the meantime, the CDC and the WHO and health authorities in countries all over the world reacted quickly to prepare for a worst case scenario. Isn't that what we want from the people who are responsible for public health?
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