After 14-year-old Reeda Sheikh succumbed to swine flu on Monday, panic has gripped the nation. Parents are rushing to hospitals. News channels are recycling images of terror-stricken citizens donning surgical masks. But this is about more than just the H1N1 virus. While swine flu is spreading quickly, it is currently mostly treatable. But a proper response to an emergency of pandemic-proportions—whether a disease or bioterrorism—is increasingly imperative. Swine flu can serve as such a template.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Widespread closures, isolation or quarantines are not only ineffective but impractical: In the US, health officials have said that school or office closures—and similar measures— are unlikely to prevent the spread of the flu. Instead, these actions might only delay its reach. Closures could also have serious implications for the economy.
This kind of trade-off makes sense for a more deadly disease: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had a mortality rate at least 15 times that of the swine flu. This influenza’s death rate, by some estimates, is less than 1%. Many—though certainly not all—swine flu deaths have involved other factors such as obesity or diabetes. Health experts point out that many more die annually from regular flu.
The government’s priority, instead, should be testing. It’s an expensive proposition, but swine flu can be treated if it is detected early. Already, certain public hospitals designated as testing sites are overburdened with patients fearing they have the flu. Emergency testing sites—outside of hospitals— must be designated. It is a bad idea to bring those who are potentially positive to already busy hospitals, where many suffer from other complications, which might make them more susceptible to the flu. Such sites also could be useful down the line for emergency situations.
The government must stockpile medicines such as oseltamivir. It must ensure that only true flu candidates use such medication—and that they take their entire dose. Mutation would be disastrous, especially if present treatments became ineffective against an evolving strain.
Finally, coordination and communication are key. The rumour mill is already churning. The government must address this false information and create a triage system of testing: Only those with plausible symptoms should be considered for testing.
There has been a lot of unnecessary hype about swine flu. While it can be deadly, it is currently a treatable influenza. The pandemic is, instead, an opportunity for the government to put together a strong emergency response system.
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