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Flu fear higher than needed

  • Maris Beck and Nick Miller
  • May 4, 2009

THE World Health Organisation has "cried wolf"' over swine flu, a leading US researcher says.

An expert in epidemiology from Stanford University, Shelley Salpeter, said that recent changes in the World Health Organisation's influenza pandemic guidelines had exaggerated the risks of swine flu, which has infected fewer people than normal strains of influenza.

A World Health Organisation representative confirmed that, following the avian flu outbreak of 2003, the threshold for pandemic alerts was lowered so people would be better prepared for a serious outbreak.

In April, the WHO released new guidelines that would "more accurately reflect pandemic risk and the epidemiological situation".

Under the new guidelines, the WHO moves to its second-highest alert level if two countries in a global region reported human-to-human transmission of the disease. It says this is "a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent".

But a WHO spokesman admitted that under the guidelines many normal strains of flu would also be "pandemics".

Pandemic alerts are not issued for normal influenza strains because only new strains, such as swine flu, are classified by the WHO.

As of yesterday the WHO had confirmed 658 cases of swine flu, 397 of them in Mexico. All but one of the 17 deaths has been in Mexico. There are no confirmed cases in Australia.

Dr Salpeter, who is a clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University's School of Medicine, said she expected the rate of infection to taper off soon in Mexico, because most infection rates peak at six to 12 weeks in one location.

Even if only one out of a hundred cases has been diagnosed, the number of cases in Mexico is still less than 0.1 per cent of Mexico's population. That is far less than typical influenza, which affects between 5 and 20 per cent of the US population each year.

In terms of the death rate, Dr Salpeter said swine flu "is just like an ordinary flu. There is nothing fancy about it in terms of its mortality."

A WHO spokeswoman said the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed up to 40 million people, had begun as a very mild form of the disease. It was too early to tell how deadly swine flu was, and there was also a risk it could mutate into a deadlier form.

Dr Salpeter said too many alerts caused confusion. If the WHO was too trigger-happy, when there was an aggressive disease outbreak, people might not take it seriously.

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