Posted by Ayurdhi Dhar on October 14, 2009

The H1N1 virus has been found to be responsible for fewer deaths than seasonal flu, but the rate at which it strikes women and children, along with its high health care costs, has led to misleading headlines like "Swine flu: 'All of humanity under threat', WHO warns".

Every new reported swine flu case gets into the limelight, but not every case deserves to be highlighted, according to a disease surveillance expert Denis Coloumbier, head of European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's preparedness and response unit. According to him, the magnitude of the response by people towards this epidemic has so far been appropriate.

"We had a period of anxiety because the first phase developed very, very quickly and the situation was unclear in Mexico" where the virus was first reported, he said.

But, according to him, the panic, which led to immediate measures being taken, actually helped avert the spread of the H1N1 virus very quickly.

"For several days, we were not very clear ourselves about the severity of the virus. But more facts emerged very quickly, and we realized the virus was circulating in the United States and therefore had been around for a while," he added. "We did well to prepare in the way we did. We must always prepare for the worst plausible scenario and the work that was done indicated the possibility of a very severe pandemic.”

He has also said that a second wave of the infection could occur within weeks.

Less dangerous than seasonal flu
According to Coloumbier, the H1N1 virus was the cause of very few deaths (0.2 to 0.3 per thousand) in the people who contracted it. The winter flu has a much higher casualty rate of 1 per thousand.

In the United States, the mortality rate from the seasonal flu each year is 36,000, and about 5-6 percent people contract the virus.

According to scientists who are studying this hybrid form of influenza, it is not nearly as fatal as some of the older pandemics.

Richard Webby, a leading influenza virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee said, "This virus doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to kill like the 1918 virus."

Even though the virus is not as dangerous as it is made out to be, the longer this virus survives, the higher are the chances that it will mutate into something more deadly.

Why the big deal?
The reason why swine flu is causing such panic is that it is affecting children, who are usually not affected by the seasonal form of influenza. On the other hand, older people, who are generally the victims of the winter flu, have been relatively unaffected by this.

According to Coloumbier, a theory suggests that people affected by the swine flu have retained a certain immunity against it. But he warns that it is only a tentative theory.

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