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30 Apr, 2009 20:55

Flu stories traveling faster than flu itself

The latest global health scare, swine flu, is spreading, bringing a wave of panic in its wake. But experts are playing down the threat, saying the world has never been better prepared for a pandemic.

At the epicenter of the outbreak, in Mexico, there are 97 confirmed cases of swine flu and seven of those people have died.

According to the Ria Novosti news agency, in the US 121 people are infected with swine flu. A two-year-old child in Texas is reported to have died from it.

Across the world 236 people have been diagnosed with swine flu. So far, fourteen nations have confirmed cases of infection.

To date, Russia has no confirmed cases of swine flu. The authorities have imposed a ban on pig imports and are screening people at airports for influenza-like symptoms such as high temperatures.

The US administration has said a security aide who helped arrange President Obama's recent trip to Mexico probably had swine flu but has recovered and is now back at work. The official fell ill in Mexico before returning home. His wife and son then contracted the virus; but all are now reported to be in good health.

Obama’s administration strongly opposes closing the U.S.-Mexico border even though the number of swine flu cases in the US has surpassed 100 in 16 states.

The World Health Organisation has raised its alert level to phase 5, one step short of a pandemic. But it also said the world is better prepared for a full scale influenza outbreak than at any time in history.

During emergency talks, European Union health ministers agreed to work with drug makers to develop a "pilot vaccine" to fight swine flu, which has been confirmed in six European countries so far.

Still, authorities around the globe are giving assurances there's no need to panic when it comes to swine flu but fears of a pandemic seem to be spreading faster than the virus itself.

The modern world hasn’t experienced a pandemic like the Spanish flu outbreak at the beginning of the 20th century, which killed up to 40 million people.

In recent years the deadliest flu strain has been bird flu, which kills more than 60% of those who catch it. To date it has only killed around 250 people worldwide.

The death rates for the outbreak are relatively low – 2.5% as compared to 17% for SARS or 61% for the infamous H5N1 bird flu.

“Flu is a serious illness itself and the CDC, the Centre for Flu Control, reports about 37,000 flu-related deaths in the US every year,” Dr Simon Matskeplishvili says.

But humanity seems to quickly embrace apocalyptic scenarios and swine flu is expected by many to be the next global serial killer. These expectations at times lead to overreaction.

In 1976 a single case of swine flu death in the US resulted in rushed measures. After five soldiers fell ill at Fort Dix and one died, around $135 million was spent on vaccination. Up to 40 million people took it – and at least 25 died from side effects. There was no outbreak and it cost President Ford his re-election.

Today, governments are allocating billions to stem the threat. The World Bank has provided Mexico with a $200 million emergency loan and the US is pouring money into their virus defences.

And the media loosely uses terms like “outbreak” and “pandemic”.

“The day it was called ‘the pandemic’, the financial markets reacted with a sharp drop in pork stocks. People started investing more in gold and currency – the US dollar and Japanese yen. Shares in pharmaceuticals skyrocketed. But worries soon calmed as it became clear the situation is under control,” Aleksandr Potavin said, ‘IT Invest’ expert.

Meanwhile, many experts agree that despite the potential danger of the virus, it’s far too early to call it a “pandemic”.

Tatyana Yasina, from the Moscow-based Institute for the Economy in Transition, says people's tendency to panic in the face of flu epidemics could have serious economic repurcussions.

“Historically, if we remember the two previous epidemics, “mad cow” disease and bird flu, these were the battles between chicken and beef. At first, at the height of the “mad cow disease” scare, demand for chicken meat increased. Later beef took revenge. Such epidemics, be they real or fictitious, are very bad for free trade,” she says. “Mankind in general is very inclined to panicking, especially if you look in the internet. It’s full of apocalyptic predictions wreaking havoc across continents. It is all about media hype which is very dangerous and causes far more panic than the situation actually deserves.”

Meanwhile, Interpol has warned people to be wary of criminals exploiting the swine flu outbreak by peddling fake medicines. Around four per cent of all spam e-mails circulating on the internet are related to swine flu.