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Swine flu: Why such a huge response to so few cases?

Scientists are only now getting a handle on the details of the outbreak, so governments have taken a path of caution.

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In recent days, the world has taken far-reaching steps to brace itself against the swine flu: The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level to 5 on a six-point scale, the United States secretary of Homeland Security has declared a public-health emergency, and federal officials have released a stockpile of vaccines to state and local public-health providers.

The US has recorded 109 confirmed cases and one death related to this new variant of the flu. Yet in a typical flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate, some 36,000 people die in America alone because of complications from the illness.

Given the relatively small footprint of the disease so far, why has the US and the world community responded so overwhelmingly?

The answer: caution in the face of what scientists and public-health officials say they don't know about the virus.

"This situation is evolving rapidly, and it's filled with uncertainty," said Richard Besser, acting head of the CDC in Atlanta, during a press briefing.

In situations like these, public-heath officials walk a fine line between taking what they see as prudent precautions and triggering what some specialists call excessive fear.

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