Swine Flu: Why All the Hype?

As I wrote on Twitter earlier today: “35,000-50,000 die each year from influenza [and subsequent bacterial pneumonia] in the U.S. The panic over this swine flu is whacko. Is it just a slow news week?”

Okay, so I can understand the media frenzy — we’re all used to it — but what about the Obama administration? Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security) and CDC officials aren’t just accepting interviews, they’re pushing this. When’s the last time a U.S. president opened a major press conference suggesting we wash our hands and stay home from school or work? It’s really quite extraordinary. And puzzling.

And then it hit me. Of course! The Obama administration is scared to death that this could be their Katrina. They know the chances of the H1N1 flu becoming a true national tragedy are quite slim, but they’d rather risk the consequences of overreacting than take the chance they’d be blamed for an inadequate response. For them it’s not about the likelihood the swine flu will become something we should worry about. Instead, it’s about *their* risk of being associated with the previous administration’s national-response failures. Once I figured that out, it all made sense.

I don’t want to give the impression that this isn’t a potentially serious situation. I believe it is, particularly because the virus has essentially spread worldwide and development of a vaccine has just begun. I hear it could take 9-12 months before large quantities can be available and by then 25%-30% of the population could have already been infected. And we also don’t know how virulent this microbe really is. Only one fatality yet in the U.S., and that was a young child who came here from Mexico. 160+ deaths in Mexico, but we don’t yet have a clue of the actual death rate. How many were infected and recovered? If the virus is already widespread, 160 deaths could actually suggest a milder-than-usual outbreak.

Bottom line: It’s early. Let’s all hope the pandemic (already declared by the WHO) turns out to blow over quickly. But in the meantime, there’s certainly no shortage of attention being given to it, from the White House on down.

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