Finnegan's Take

Close the airports, lock up your children, stockpile tinned food and quarantine the next person who sneezes – we’re headed for an all-out flu pandemic!

The WHO is preparing to raise the swine flu (sorry, A/H1N1 influenza) outbreak to level six on its six-point pandemic scale. This is it. This is red alert – the first global pandemic in 41 years.

Well, not quite. It’s a bit of a damp squib really. If this is as bad as it gets, surely the WHO needs a seventh point on it’s scale. Swine flu simply hasn’t killed that many people. No disrespect to the 130 or so victims it has claimed to date, but seasonal flu outbreaks claim many more lives every year. So do hungry hippos.

The trouble is that the six-point scale is a blunt instrument. It is based on geography and transmission rather than severity. Person-to-person infection at community level on two or more continents can constitute a pandemic, regardless of whether the virus in question kills 1% of those infected or has the virulence of Ebola.

Perhaps realising this, the WHO is considering adding some caveats to its anticipating ratcheting up of the panic scale. It is expected to say something like “This is as bad as it gets, except that it’s really not so bad.” Several countries are lobbying the Organisation to tread carefully before sounding the alarm, for fear of crippling troubled economies.

Public health should trump economics, but the impact on economies of declaring a full-scale pandemic must be taken into account.

The solution? Raise swine flu to level 6 – but expand the scale to reflect the fact that things could be much, much worse.

EU considers raising alert level over flu virus

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