Swine flu: Are we overreacting?

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Since news emerged last week of a deadly swine flu outbreak in Mexico, government and health officials around the globe -- including President Barack Obama -- have tried to assure the public the outbreak is a cause for concern, but not alarm.

But how do people stay calm when images of mask-clad Mexican citizens top the evening news, and some media outlets are telling parents to keep their kids out of school and not attend public events?

"There's an element of panic that's involved that may be out of proportion to what's going on," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in an interview on MPR's Midmorning program. "How people react to a pandemic is often more dangerous, if not deadly, than the pandemic itself."

Osterholm said the "hour-by-hour count of (swine flu) cases" by some media organizations is doing more harm than good for the general public right now.

He said while health officials around the country are preparing to act quickly in the event of a pandemic, there's no need for the public to overreact. Rather, he urges people who might feel flu-like symptoms to see a doctor right away.

On Tuesday, swine flu cases in the United States rose above 60, as governments around the world intensified steps to battle the outbreak that has killed scores of people in Mexico. President Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion to fight the fast-spreading disease.

Under the worst case scenario, U.S. government planners estimate two million people will die if the Mexican swine flu becomes a global pandemic. Hospitals will be overwhelmed and schools would close. Baseball stadiums and houses of worship would be empty.

As entire societies turn inward, the global economy would take a direct hit. Trust for America's Health, an independent health group, estimated in 2007 that a severe pandemic would shrink U.S. output by about 5.5 percent.

"It could be a real blow to any type of recovery," Kim Elliott, deputy director of the Trust for America's Health, told the Associated Press. "The whole idea of a just-in-time economy means we depend on each other globally."

We're nowhere close to that. But government leaders at all levels, and major employers, have spent nearly four years planning for the worst in a series of exercises. And their reports, as well as interviews with policymakers, paint a grim picture of what could happen if the swine flu gets severely out of control.

A full-scale pandemic -- like the 1918 Spanish flu -- would sicken 90 million Americans, or about 30 percent of the population.

It could claim the lives of about 2 percent of those infected, about 2 million people, according to government experts. To put that in perspective, the flu typically causes about 30,000 deaths each year.

Gerald Callahan, an associate professor of Immunology and the Public Understanding of Science at Colorado State University, said on MPR's Midmorning that the media coverage of swine flu is "remarkable," but also cautioned that it may be somewhat excessive.

"For it to become such a major subject at this point seems it might be out of proportion," said Callahan, the author of "Infection: The Uninvited Universe."

"I do believe it's absolutely necessary for the (Centers for Disease Control) and the (World Health Organization) to be preparing for what might happen, but at this point I don't think it warrants the kind of concern that's been generated," Callahan said.

If a pandemic strikes, the government estimates that nearly 10 million patients would have to be admitted to the hospital, and nearly 1.5 million would need intensive care.

But even if the new swine flu from Mexico turns out to be especially aggressive, the worst consequences could be averted.

The nation has made strides in stockpiling antiviral medicines, speeding the production of vaccines and laying down basic public health guidelines.

The government got serious about worst-case planning during the 2005 bird flu scare, as the lessons of Hurricane Katrina loomed large.

"We have a playbook that was developed and is being followed," said Michael Leavitt, who as secretary of Health and Human Services oversaw pandemic planning for President George W. Bush. "It's a substantially better picture than what we faced three years ago."

There are gaps. Some states have not stockpiled their full allocation of antiviral medicines, critical in treating and preventing diseases during the early stages of a pandemic, before a vaccine has been developed.

Elliott said the federal government has not fulfilled some elements of its own plan, such as purchasing preventive doses of antivirals that would be reserved for medical personnel and first responders. So far, antiviral medicines are proving effective against the Mexico flu.

Dr. Jeff Runge, former chief medical officer for Homeland Security, said it's clearly not a pandemic yet, but it's too early to tell. The next week or two will be critical.

Runge seemed confident. "We've come a long ways since we've been doing this pandemic flu planning," he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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