ATLANTA — As reports of a unique form of swine flu erupt around the world, the inevitable question arises: Is this the big one?
Is this the next big global flu epidemic that public health experts have long worried about? Is this the novel virus that will kill millions around the world, as pandemics did in 1918, 1957 and 1968?
It’s too soon to tell.
“What makes this so difficult is we may be somewhere between an important but yet still uneventful public health occurrence here, with something that could literally die out over the next couple of weeks and never show up again, or this could be the opening act of a full-fledged influenza pandemic,” said Michael Osterholm, an expert on global flu outbreaks with the University of Minnesota. “We have no clue right now where we are between those two extremes. That’s the problem.”
Health officials want to take every step to prevent an outbreak from spiraling into mass casualties.
Predicting influenza is dicey, as the U.S. government famously guessed wrong in 1976.
After soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., became sick that year with an unusual form of swine flu, federal officials vaccinated 40 million Americans. The pandemic never materialized, but thousands who got the shots reported suffering a paralyzing condition and other side effects from the vaccinations.
To this day, health officials don’t know why the 1976 virus petered out.
“The first lesson is anyone who tries to predict influenza often goes down in flames,” said Dr. Richard Wenzel, the immediate past president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.
But health officials are being asked to make such predictions, as panic began to set in over the weekend.
In the United States, there have been no deaths, and all infected patients had either recovered or were recovering. But the confirmed cases around the nation rose from eight Saturday morning to 20 by Sunday afternoon, including eight in New York City, a national media center. The New York Post’s front page headline on Sunday was “Pig Flu Panic.”
The concern level rose further when federal officials on Sunday declared a public health emergency — a procedural step, they said, to mobilize antiviral medicine and other resources and be ready if the U.S. situation gets worse.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say that so far, swine flu cases in the United States have been mild. But they also say more cases will probably be reported, at least partly because doctors and health officials across the country are looking intensively for suspicious cases.