When a representative of the World Health Organization steps up to the microphone and announces that we’re on the verge of a pandemic, how could anyone not freak out at least a little bit?
The very word "pandemic" conjures up images of hazmat suits and monkeys rattling laboratory cages — a deadly disease so contagious that it threatens to sweep across the nation like flames through a bone-dry forest.
With the WHO just one step away from declaring a full-blown global pandemic, Americans are left wondering what this all means.
“ ‘Pandemic’ is very scary word,” said Dr. Andrew Garrett, director for planning and response at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It’s like when the Department of Homeland Security raises its level of alert. There’s a fear response — and your adrenaline goes up.”
On Wednesday, the WHO notched up its alert system to a level five, the second-highest phase of pandemic. We could likely hit a level six any day now, but even that doesn't mean much for a typical American, experts emphasize.
The message is mainly meant for other countries, where the virus has yet to make an appearance, Garrett said. “We are dealing with this as a country that was involved from the start,” he added.
“But it now looks like this is going to turn into a pandemic and the World Health Organization’s responsibility is to synthesize the data and maintain awareness for all of its members around the globe. The World Health Organization’s alert represents an acknowledgement that this is now on a global stage.”
The reason for the increased level of alert is that we now know the disease can be passed between people fairly easily, Garrett said. Originally, all the cases were in people who lived in Mexico or had traveled there. But now we see people catching H1N1, the virus strain known as swine flu, who had no ties to that country. A simply signifies community-level outbreaks in at least two regions of the world.
In other words, don't panic, people! That's the the bottom line from Dr. Lee Harrison, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Right now, the average citizen doesn’t need to do anything except to pay attention to news on the developing pandemic and to keep away from others if flu symptoms strike. There is no call to action at this point, except follow basic flu etiquette — don't cough on people and wash your hands often. If you show symptoms of the flu — such as coughing or sneezing — don't go to work or school and spread your germs around, whether they're the swine kind or a garden-variety cold. If you have a fever or difficulty breathing, call your doctor.
Sitting in a park watching some toddlers at play in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., Diana Mathews was still digesting the news. “It’s little unnerving,” said the 65-year old Queens resident.
“When someone I know comes down with it, that’s when I’m really going to get scared,” she said.
The WHO's announcement is less a signal to the public and more a matter of putting public health officials on notice. “They are being told ... they should set in motion the plans they’ve developed for dealing with a flu pandemic,” Harrison said. For instance, they should dig into their stockpiles of antiviral medications and make sure their hospitals are ready to deal with an explosion of cases, if it should come to that.
Some health experts, however, say people are right to worry — at least somewhat. “It is scary,” said Dr. Peter Katona, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Every day I get a little more pessimistic.”
The rapid spread of the disease is what worries Katona the most — that and the fact that it’s a swine flu rather than a human variety. That fact makes this virus very unpredictable.
“The pig is a very dangerous animal when it comes to the flu,” he said. “It has the ability to recombine genetic material from different species, something that neither birds nor humans can do. And now we’ve got a new form of flu that nobody’s had contact with.”
Until more data is analyzed, we won’t know how H1N1 compares to historical viruses — whether it’s closer to the flu that strikes each winter or whether we’re going to have a repeat of the extraordinarily lethal 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions around the globe.
In the end, we may find that this flu is not especially deadly, said Harrison. In the United States, there’s been only one death, he noted.
It’s entirely possible that many, many more people in Mexico were infected and got better without ever even seeing a doctor, he said. We may just be hearing about the people who got very sick and died. Keep in mind, he added, that the seasonal flu itself is not trivial — it causes 36,000 deaths annually.
We also don’t know how contagious this flu is, he said, pointing to the bird flu as a case where the disease just fizzled out because it wasn’t that catchy, even though it was quite deadly.