Large parts of the world reacted to the swine flu outbreak with a typical lack of stoicism.
Cuba suspended all travel to and from Mexico; cruise lines cancelled stops in Mexico; and the European Union in a moment of panic issued and then quickly rescinded a travel ban to the United States even though the World Health Organization recommends against border closings and travel restrictions. WHO’s common-sense advice: If you feel sick, don’t travel.
WHO noted that the economic disruptions from travel restrictions imposed during the 2003 SARS epidemic that killed 774 far outweighed the public health benefits.
Russia banned meat imports from Mexico and 11 U.S. states even though WHO says the flu is not spread by contact with meat. Some nations, mainly in Asia, are quarantining passengers who arrive with a temperature.
In Mexico City, schools, universities, churches and most public venues were closed although most people weren’t going outside anyway. Those who did wore surgical masks even though they are useless against the spread of the flu.
In some American cities, pharmacies reported runs on anti-flu drugs even though health experts say the drugs should be reserved for the truly ill.
As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, Mexico was saying that swine flu was suspected in 152 deaths. As of the same time, there were 64 confirmed cases in the United States, only five of the victims hospitalized.
Lost in the uproar over this particular strain of swine flu is this: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 36,000 Americans die of the flu each year.
That doesn’t mean swine flu should not be taken seriously.
The most lethal public health crisis ever in the U.S. was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which, when it was over two years later, had killed worldwide more than twice the number that had died in the just-concluded slaughter of the First World War.
President Obama’s formulation is apt: Swine flu is cause for concern but not alarm. Still, people panic over swine flu for the same reason they play the lottery: Sure, the odds against are better than a hundred million to one – but you never know.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.