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Swine flu: WHO treads between alertness – and a scare

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Swine flu scare?

We’ve been there before.

In 1976, a soldier in Fort Dix New Jersey died after being diagnosed with swine flu. The base was quarantined. In the panic that followed, the US government sponsored a $135 million immunization program. About 40 million Americans got flu shots before the program was shelved. No one else died.

More recently, the Asian bird flu and severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) captured the media’s attention. Yes, there were hundreds of deaths related to SARS. There’s no question that in both outbreaks Asian governments tried initially to hide a serious problem. But the fear of a global pandemic leading to hundreds of thousands dead never panned out.

As a matter of context, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that an estimated 36,000 people die each year in the US from flu or flu-related illnesses – and about 90 percent of those deaths are people over the age of 65.

The current concern over reported cases of swine flu in Mexico, the US, and Europe are not to be taken lightly. As many as 81 people have seen their family members die in Mexico. No deaths, to date, have been attributed to the disease elsewhere.

But this situation poses a familiar problem for public health officials: How to properly warn people without sowing panic – or undermining their credibility if there is no pandemic?

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