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Morning briefing: Why the big response to flu?

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The international reaction to the outbreak of swine flu (a.k.a., the H1N1 virus) has tread the line between caution and overreaction. With travel restrictions and school closures mounting in the US and around the world, the Monitor science correspondent Pete Spotts provides readers today with an analysis of the public health response.

As Pete notes, "The reason for the high-powered responses have at least as much to do with what the scientists and public health officials say they don't know about the virus as with what they do know."

In a follow-up e-mail, Pete expanded on that point: "It's a significantly new strain (genetically), so a lot of uncertainty exists as to how easily it spreads and how severe its symptoms are likely to be."

Two other big events come to mind:

- Katrina: Governmental under-reaction caused massive outrage. FEMA and the judgment of its then-director, Michael Brown, became an object of scorn, a reputational stain that is still reverberating.
-Y2K. Billions of dollars were spent to make computers safe from meltdown as the century turned.

Because a meltdown did not come to pass, most people remember it only as a fire drill.

In uncertain times, a big response appears to be the safest response. Little wonder then that governments and health authorities around the world are on high alert. In a globally connected economy, as seen with the financial crisis, what happens in one hemisphere quickly affects another.

Same with the flu. If officials have gone too far, the public might be a little irritated. If they have not gone far enough, public outrage could put officials' jobs on the line.

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