The World Health Organization is on High Alert, following an outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico and two soutern States of the United States of America. It is feared the disease may reach pandemic proportions.
For a disease to qualify as being of 'pandemic proportions' three conditions have to be met. The disease must be new to a population, the disease must be able to infect humans and cause serious disease and the agent must be able to spread easily and sustainably amongst humans. Furthermore, the disease must be widespread, affecting a whole continent or several continents.
Originally swine flu only affected pigs, and though it was economically disastrous for those involved in the rearing and breeding of pigs, essentially when the herd could be isolated and slaughtered and the infection was under control there were no repercusions for the world at large. People did die from the disease, but needed to have direct contact with a diseased pig.
Swine fever as such is nothing new, and there have been repeated outbreaks of it worldwide over the last two centuries. What makes this particular outbreak worrying are two new features of the disease.
The first feature is that it appears to be healthy young adults who are the main victims of this disease, whereas most flu epidemics cause more deaths amongst the very old and the very young. The second, and very worrying trait is that the eight people who have so far been diagnosed as having this strain in the US, have had no contact with pigs at all - i.e. the transmission can have only been from person to person, thereby fulfilling the third condition that must be met for a disease to be of potentially pandemic proportions.
The main problem facing the WHO and the world at large is that as people now travel easily, the virus will be able to spread rapidly to other parts of the world. Mexico is a very popular tourist destination and in the Netherlands they are already asking for all returning travellers from Mexico to report themselves and attend for medical checks.
Authorities in the capital Mexico City have responded with a sweeping shutdown of public places and events, urging people to stay home if they feel sick and to avoid shaking hands or kissing people on the cheeks. Football fixtures have also been affected, matches will be played without spectators to limit the risk of transmission of the virus.
Not all pandemics are lethal, and it is far from clear whether the current swine flu infecting people could be the beginnings of a global outbreak. However, the World Health Organization is worried enough that it has alerted an expert panel that can recommend whether to raise the alert level for a global pandemic.
Apparently we are 'overdue' for a flu pandemic and several times warnings have been sounded that there is about to be a new pandemic. No-one at this stage knows whether this will indeed become a pandemic, but if it does, there is a grave problem with the preparation of the US for dealing with the situation.
Much of North America's pandemic planning is premised on the assumption a killer virus would emerge in Asia, where all previous pandemic flu viruses have surfaced, and wouldn't arrive there for at least three months. That would allow time to begin preparing a vaccine and detailed plans to inoculate doctors, nurses, police officers, air-traffic controllers, other essential personnel and high-risk groups.
But if Mexico proves to be ground-zero, that hoped-for head-start could be lost.
It is an ill wind that blows no good however, and shares in leading Pharmaceutical Companies have soared as a consequence of the news.