For reasons known only to the policy savants in the White House, the President took steps this week to politicize the swine flu pandemic, and in doing so, turned it into a scare that is frightening everyone.
On Monday August 24, the White House issued a hysterical prediction that up to half the US population could come down with the disease. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology,said in a report that as many as 1.8 million could end up in the hospital. A worst case scenario,according to the report,would lead to between 60 and 120 million Americans getting sick;another 30 million might get the the H1N1 virus but show no symptoms.Somewhere between 30,000-90,000 could die.That would be more than twice the annual average of deaths associated with the usual seasonal flu.
These dire predictions come at a time the White House is pressuring manufacturers to hurry up production of the new vaccine, which already has raised some skepticism in the medical community over its effectiveness and,since it hasn’t been thoroughly tested ,whether there may be side effects.
The previous Friday,August 21,the government took a decidedly calmer view at a briefing by CDC experts. Following is one exchange dealing with their thoughts on the severity of the pandemic:
Tom Mah,LA Times: World Health Organization official has been quoted as predicting a “explosion” of flu this fall, of this new pandemic flu. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Jay Butler, Director of CDC’s H1N1 Vaccine Task Force: Okay, well, to return to the recurring theme, influenza certainly is a virus that behaves in sometimes unexpected and surprising ways. An explosion of influenza activity would certainly be one of the worst case scenarios, and it’s part of what we prepare for. We don’t want to make assumptions that this is going to be mild. That’s, you know, that kind of description is, I would say, a, projecting a worst case scenario, whether or not that occurs or not, I don’t think any of us know. Dr. Goodman?
Dr. Jesse Goodman, Acting Chief Scientist and Deputy Commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration: No, I don’t have anything to add.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes for Health: No, not really, except to say that we should expect that there will be particularly as we get to see children come back into school and congregate in places where they’re in close contact with each other, you know, if you want to call that an explosion, you know, I think sometimes words that are used in an innocent way create alarm. I think in a realistic setting, we should expect that there clearly is going to be an upsurge of cases when you get into the fall. It might not be, as Jay said, early on, but we certainly need to expect that, as we have the confluence of kids going back to school, and the weather going into an influenza season. So that would not be surprising. Hopefully it’s not going to be bad, but we’ll be prepared for it.
Jay Butler: Certainly we see more influenza in the fall and winter in the northern hemisphere, so whether or not that’s an explosion or not, depends on your definition. We now have a new influenza virus which the population has very little immunity to, so I think it’s absolutely right that we need to expect that the level of disease is going to increase as we get into our expected influenza season. How bad that will be, whether or not it will be an explosion, we really can’t say. Jesse?
Jesse Goodman: Yes, I think, again, this is part of the reason we’re all here and we’re all working very hard to do everything we can to be prepared. You know, we, again, as Dr. Butler said, most younger people do not have much or any cross-reacting immunity to this virus, so even though the infections, the overwhelming majority have been mild, a lot of people are getting infected, and some of them have severe disease, and as people come together, that’s a factor that increases infection. As the weather turns cold, that appears to be a factor that increases infection, so I think we can expect an increase in infection, and we need to be prepared for the fact that it could be more severe for some reason. It could be the same. Also, other countries, as Dr. Butler mentioned, have been recently going through this, and have shown that, you know, for example, in South America and Australia, this can have a significant effect on the population. However, it can also be managed through public health measures, and as Dr. Butler said, we should be prepared to do everything we can do, but this is an epidemic of an infectious disease.