The NY Times and many other newspapers carried the story over the weekend of how the World Health Organization bowed to pressure from the developed world and has pulled back from declaring Swine Flu (H1N1) a full blown, level 6 Pandemic.
Depending on if you like Fox News or CNN, you may have heard two very different interpretations of this reversal. Instead, we recommend the third choice, namely common sense.
The WHO’s Alert System was created to address the threat of Avian Flu (H5N1) or Bird Flu if you prefer. This version of the influenza virus has a mortality rate approaching 60%.
Instead, the next influenza outbreak that comes along is for Swine Flu (H1N1) which has a mortality rate of less than 3%, far below the numbers associated with seasonal flu. Since humans have little or no immunity to this virus, it spreads easily and has sustained transmission in communities outside the region of origin. Under the WHO’s original rules, that would have triggered a full Level 6 Pandemic, which in turn trips the levers of several response mechanisms including travel restrictions, vaccine production, etc.
But since the Swine Flu has proven far less lethal, many of the developed nations, including the US urged the WHO to change it’s rules. For some the reversal seems a clear cut case of not valuing human life in the Third World. To others, it shows a lack of understanding of the very real threat that the virus poses if it should mutate over the coming months into a more fatal version, which is what happened in 1918.
Between these two extremes, the World Health Organization has chosen the third path. Changing the rules avoids the economic impact of a full blown response at a time when the world’s economies don’t need more bad news. But rest assured that Swine Flu (H1N1) has put new teeth into preparedness efforts to combat pandemics, and we’ll all be better prepared when the nastier version comes along.