Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pigging out on the flu

Global media have been on a fear-feeding frenzy these past few days over reports of swine flu cases scattered throughout the world.
It is good that relevant agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Homeland Security, are taking these reports seriously. (Check out this new ASIL Insight on the international law of disease control, by our colleague David P. Fidler.) Good too that government in the site most affected so far, Mexico, is taking extra measures.
As for the media and other global actors, however, it's hard to shake a sense that the subtext of many of their warnings is about something other than saving lives.
Consider:
► A WHO flyer makes clear that eating properly prepared pork poses no swine flu risks. As long as the meat's cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, as it must be for other food-safety reasons, no problem.
So why the "pork bans"?
► As of yesterday, CDC had confirmed 40 U.S. cases of swine flu, contained within 5 of the country's 50 states. That number's less than a third of the students I teach in class on any given day. No deaths had been reported. Indeed, although this strain of influenza is highly contagious, although its symptoms are as acute as those one sees in other severe flus, according to the WHO, "mortality is low (1-4%)."
So why a European Union advisory to avoid travel to the United States?
"This is a rapidly evolving situation," CDC advises, and of course everyone should take care that conditions don't change for the worse. At-risk persons, like the elderly or already ill, should be on special guard. But for the rest of us, for now at least, a bit of sanity coupled with ordinary sanitary measures -- washing hands frequently, staying home if sick, and calling a physician if very sick -- would seem likely to do the flu-fighting trick.

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