WHO To The World: Swine Flu Is Still Serious

Don’t think the worst is over: That was the message at the daily press conference of the World Health Organization this afternoon. Speaking from a special press tent in Geneva, WHO’s Keiji Fukuda tried to push back against a growing backlash of those who say swine flu is a big media hypeThe Guardian’s columnist Simon Jenkins pulled out all the stops on Tuesday, charging a “global coalition of scientists, doom-merchants and drugs profiteers” with scare-mongering. And according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 45% of Americans think the media is exaggerating the threat.

Not so fast, Fukuda said. Transmission is still occurring in several locales, and WHO is particularly worried about what will happen in the southern hemisphere, which will likely see a rise in cases now that it is entering winter. The population there may also be more susceptible because of malnutrition, HIV, war, and because there are lots of young people, who so far seem most at risk.

Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, echoed Fukuda's warning at a press conference this afternoon. “We are not seeing any signs of this petering out.” Mexico is still seeing “significant transmission,” said Besser. And there continues to be an “upswing” of cases in the United States. As of today, the United States has 896 confirmed cases and 927 probable cases (tomorrow's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted that so far, probable cases in the United States have tested positive more than 99% of the time). Besides, Fukada says, there’s a good chance the virus will come back to the northern hemisphere in the fall and that it could become more virulent.

Moreover, even if the outbreak remains relatively mild, the mere numbers make it a major worry. It’s not uncommon for one-third of the world population to become sick during an influenza pandemic, Fukuda pointed out: That would be 2.2 billion of us. Even if only a small fraction becomes severely ill, that could mean many millions of people who suddenly need hospitalization and respirators—and who could die.

Fukuda declined to elaborate further, but you can do your own calculations: If, indeed, a third of the world gets sick and the case fatality rate of 0.22% seen in the United States holds up worldwide, 4.5 million people might die within a year or two.