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Flu’s True Severity Is Still Unknown

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Joel Achenbach and David Brown
Washington Post
Saturday, May 2, 2009

So is this new swine flu outbreak the next great plague, or just a global spasm of paranoia?

Are we seeing a pandemic or a panic?

The pathogen that has seized the world’s attention has an official name (swine-origin influenza A H1N1), an acronym (S-OIV), a nickname (swine flu) and an apparent birthplace (Mexico). But the essential nature of the pathogen, its personality, its virulence, remain matters of frenetic investigation. Like all influenza viruses, it is mutating capriciously and, thus, is not a static and predictable public health threat but an evolving one.

The bug has gone global, having shown up in Asia yesterday with the first reported case in Hong Kong. It also popped up in Denmark, as well as in eight new U.S. states.

But there has been some flu-scare backlash, with some officials questioning whether schools are too quick to close their doors at the first hint of the virus.

The World Health Organization directly addressed the pandemic-versus-panic issue yesterday by cautioning the public against leaping to any conclusions about the virulence of the virus. It has yet to show lethality outside Mexico (the one person to die in the United States was a toddler who traveled from Mexico to Texas), though that doesn’t mean it will remain a mild pathogen in the weeks and months to come, officials said.

Influenza is a simple virus, with just eight genes, but it makes poor copies of itself, leading to constant mutation. Most of those mutations are dead ends, but, given enough chances, the virus can become more infectious or more lethal. Although the United States is past its flu season, the Southern Hemisphere, where the virus has spread, is entering the cold months when influenza can become explosive.

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This article was posted: Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 5:25 am

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