Pandemic Panic: A Poorly Understood Illness Rattles the World


If you’ve so much as glanced at a newspaper or website over the past week, you’re at least marginally aware of swine flu, the maybe-pandemic that has quickly dethroned Somali pirates as the best reason to follow the news.

Over the past week, cases of the disease have been disclosed the world over, from Scotland to Peru to California. Mexico, where the illness was reported to have killed 152 people — though some say the number is as low as seven — is the flu’s undisputed epicenter. Wired reports that its spread may have begun in the town of La Gloria, not far from a “large and notoriously unsanitary hog farm” run by Granjas Carroll, a division of American conglomerate Smithfield Foods.

In New York City, 45 cases were confirmed at the St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens — none of them life-threatening — and outbreaks have been reported at two other schools in the city. While all deaths to date save one have occurred in Mexico (one of the ailment’s central mysteries is why it is so much more virulent in Mexico than elsewhere), the WHO has still raised the influenza alert level to a phase 5. According to its website, this is an indication of sustained human-to-human transmission across borders. The only level above it indicates a full-scale pandemic.

Global responses so far have been varied and chaotic. EU officials have discouraged travel to North America, Israel has proposed renaming the strain the “Mexican flu” because of its citizens’ aversion to pork, and in Russia, the government has banned the import of pork altogether. Within US borders, President Obama asked Congress on Tuesday for $1.5 billion to combat the disease, and the Senate used the opportunity to confirm Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, thus completing the president’s cabinet. FAQs about swine flu can be found here, here, and here, and, as always, we encourage you to wash your hands before you put them in your mouth (or anybody else’s).

Image: Reuters/Oleg Popov