Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

While the media feeding frenzy over the swine flu outbreaks in Mexico and the United States continues unabated, some are making good sense. The New York Times editorializes:

Although the new strain of influenza is suspected of killing 149 people and sickening some 1,600 others in Mexico, the toll, so far, in this country appears slight. There have been 40 confirmed swine flu cases, the majority — 28 — associated with a single preparatory school in Queens, some of whose students visited Mexico recently.

Only four states other than New York have confirmed cases: seven in California and one or two in Texas, Ohio and Kansas. The illnesses have all been mild; only one patient was hospitalized and no one has died. Four or five days after seeing the first signs of swine flu in New York City, there is still no evidence that it has spread further.

This situation does call for careful surveillance and preparations for the worst. American health officials have taken reasonable steps. They have made preparations to distribute up to a quarter of the anti-flu medicines from the government’s strategic stockpile to states and localities should they be swamped with a wave of swine flu cases. They also have taken preliminary steps toward possible formulation of a vaccine to combat the new strain. Although it would take months to produce such a vaccine, it could be ready should another wave of swine flu emerge in the next influenza season.

Frankly, I think the last paragraph shows signs of wobbly knees. “Preparations for the worst” and “reasonable steps” are not synonymous. I favor the latter and am skeptical about the former.

In a world of cheap and nearly instantaneous communication the tone and mechanism by which official actions are taken matter. While declaring a national state of emergency may have been legally necessary it has allowed too many to give in to their worst instincts. Androulla Vassiliou, the European Union health commissioner warned Europeans to avoid travel to Mexico or the United States:

“Personally, I would try to avoid nonessential travel to the areas that are reported to be in the center of the cluster in order to minimize the personal risk and to reduce the potential risk to spread the infection,” said Androulla Vassiliou, the E.U. official.

Vassiliou later said she was simply advising Europeans to avoid “unnecessary travel” to affected areas in North America. Canada also has confirmed six cases of swine flu.

That is hysteria, not science. There have been nearly as many cases of swine flu reported in Europe as in the United States. Is Ms. Vassiliou urging Europeans to avoid “unnecessary travel” within Europe?

Dean Esmay points out that the likelihood of being struck by lightning is higher than that of contracting swine flu. The costs to the U. S. of Europeans avoiding American travel almost certainly outweigh the costs to Europeans of their contracting swine flu while on their visit. Joe Gandelman notes the costs that concerns over swine flu may have for tourism in the United States and Mexico, further straining the economies of both countries.

The CDC’s statement on swine flu is here. With the exception of New York City, where 28 cases have been reported, I seriously doubt that the 12 cases reported in 4 states is something we should be overly concerned about. The mild cases of flu that are being reported may have gone undiagnosed as something special for decades, even centuries. Nobody knows how many different strains of the flu virus there are. It may be there are millions.

Mexican politicans are using the outbreak as an excuse to vent against the United States. Democratic politicians are seizing on the outbreak as an opportunity to attack Republicans; there have been claims that the exaggeration of the severity of the situation is a political ploy; Republicans have retorted that prominent Democrats voted just the way they’re being attacked for voting.

I’m not urging that we ignore the situation. I’m urging prudence, judgment, and fortitude which are, unfortunately, always in short supply.

Now my throat is beginning to feel a little scratchy.

10 comments… add one
  • Larry Link

    p-Ed Contributor
    Where Will the Swine Flu Go Next?

    Article Tools Sponsored By
    Published: April 27, 2009 ..It will come in waves…What’s important to keep in mind in assessing the threat of the current outbreak is that all four of the well-known pandemics seem to have come in waves. The 1918 virus surfaced by March and set in motion a spring and summer wave that hit some communities and skipped others. This first wave was extremely mild, more so even than ordinary influenza: of the 10,313 sailors in the British Grand Fleet who became ill, for example, only four died. But autumn brought a second, more lethal wave, which was followed by a less severe third wave in early 1919.

    Prudence is a good thing, I say let’s do just that…We’ll all know soon enough what may or may not occur.

  • Geoff Thompson Link

    To put this into perspective, here is a video that everyone should know about – it is not good quality, but the information is real and it is worth watching

  • Kelly Link

    I have heard more than one official this week puzzling over why this flu appears so deadly in Mexico and not in the U.S. It strikes me that there is an obvious answer: Mexico, for all it’s vacation attractions, is still a third-world country. I suspect these flu cases were exacerbated by poor sanitation, lack of medical resources, malnutrition, and just plain poverty. I begin to wonder if the flu is being used as a kind of ‘fig leaf’ to explain deaths ultimately caused by government neglect of the populace.

  • I think that’s exactly right, Kelly. In the U. S. the cases that have been reported are among people with compromised immune systems and from an empirical standpoint I think we’d have at least to suspect that the situation in Mexico is the same.

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