There is a tendency to be preoccupied with the latest in fast moving events, but I want to pause for a moment to make a point that has been lost in the discussion: we are witnessing a medical science landmark. Never before have we watched a flu outbreak of global dimensions unfold in real time. Nor have we ever had the opportunity to alter the course of such an outbreak.
I have been critical of WHO for being late to the party, but they are fully on board now and by raising the pandemic threat level to phase 5 have done something very important: served notice that it’s time to mobilize resources in the event this virus shows sustained transmission in several countries. The severity of the disease it produces doesn’t have to be extremely serious or lethal for a widespread outbreak of flu in a community to do a lot of damage in productivity, economic loss and quality of life. It’s the job of public health agencies to warn communities this might happen and so they can prepare to manage the consequences. WHO has done the right thing, however this evolves from now on. And CDC’s proactive and aggressive approach is also right on target. Meanwhile we are compiling extremely valuable information about the dynamics of influenza disease spread, information that will pay off in future planning and preparedness activities.
It is normal for there to be disparate voices and opinions when something new happens. But to my ears, complaints that providing the most timely information and reasonable professional judgments to the public, as CDC and WHO have done, risks creating public panic, themselves sound hysterical and panicky. Too few people complained when the Bush administration intentionally spread fear for their own purposes. Too many people are complaining now when public health officials issue appropriate warnings for public purposes.
We are not fully prepared for the demands a lot of sickness in our communities would place on a very weakened medical and public health system. One reason for the lack of preparation is that too few people cared enough. Now when we are being given some good reasons to care, I, for one, am not complaining.