The latest wordÂ from the Word Health Organization: We're concerned about the continued spread of swine flu, but we're not ready to declare a pandemic yet.
Which appears toÂ suit several nations to a T.
Countries ranging from Britain and China to Mexico and Japan are urging the Geneva-based WHO to consider revamping its warning system. It's a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 signaling that a pandemic is underway. The alert level for now remains at 5.
According to the Associated Press, Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova grumbled that "people don't understand what 4, 5, or 6 means. They think when you go to a higher level, things are worse."
So what would kick the rating up a final notch? If the malady begins to move out of schools, hospitals, and other settings where it would be expected to quickly spread, and into the general population â€“ in at least two regions of the world.
The discussion is taking place this week in Geneva at WHO's annual meeting, which brings together public-health specialists representing 193 countries. As the meeting opened Monday, WHO statistics indicated that 8,829 confirmed cases had emerged globally in 40 nations. Some 76 deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.
Countries are expressing concern about moving to level 6 for a couple of reasons.
First, it would likely trigger travel and trade restrictions as well as quarantines. That's tough when economic times are good. In the current economic slump? Well, you get the picture.
Second, some public-health officials argue that it can appear to exaggerate the threat.
The WHO scale refers to the extent of swine flu's geographic reach, but says nothing about the likelihood that once an individual has been diagnosed as carrying the disease, he or she will or will not survive. Somehow, a scale needs to reflect that as well, some argue. Such a scale might give swine flu a far lower rating than it now has.
The discussion highlights the challenge policymakers face in coming up with approaches that will give people a reasonable sense of the risk without needlessly sending them into hiding.
Two other examples spring to mind: the hazard scale astronomers came up with to try to communicate the collision risk from asteroids, and the US Department of Homeland Security's much-maligned National Threat Advisory scale (we're at threat level "yellow" for the nation, just in case you were wondering).
Astronomers came up with the Torino Scale in 1999. It ran from zero to 10. Zero meant, no collision. Ten? Global catastrophe. The scale is still 0-10. But the wording has changed in ways astronomers hope will more accurately reflect who should be concerned about what.
For instance, on the original scale, levels 2 through 4 indicated that an object was "meriting concern." But by whom? And how much concern? After the revision, that phrase was changed to "meriting attention by astronomers." In other words, "Let's take a closer look at this one."
The same holds true for everyone's favorite Technicolor warning system: The Department of Homeland Security's National Threat Advisory.Â It was unveiled after 9/11.
The scale never was meant for general public use. It was designed for law enforcement and other public safety agencies around the country.
But you can't keep a warning scale on a high-profile threat down on the farm for long.
These days, it's being put to more-nuanced use. DHS is still happy to post a national threat level. But the scale also is being used to signal threat levels to specific economic sectors, regions of the country, or both. So rail corridors in the Northeast might have one threat level, while bike paths in the Pacific Northwest might have a different threat level assigned to them. OK, bike paths are a real stretch, but you get the idea.
The threat level may not mean much to the average ticket-holder. But conductors might give folks and their luggage a tighter bit of scrutiny. Or not, if the color trends toward "cool."