Just how concerned should we be about the swine flu outbreak? I posed the question to Sandro Galea, director of the Center for Global Health and professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. His take: We don't need to panic quite yet. But do wash your hands.
How scared should we be?
It is difficult to know how scared we should be. There's evidence that the swine flu cases have been very severe among people in Mexico, but the cases in this country have been fairly mild. If the variants remain mild, there is little reason to be very scared. The danger is that the nature of the epidemic could shift quickly to result in people having more severe symptoms. Given the pace of the spread, we probably will know in a matter of days. It wouldn't be at all surprising if [the spreading] went on for weeks and there were multiple waves of infections. When SARS broke out, there were waves for weeks and months.
How well-equipped is the U.S. to handle a pandemic, if this were to become one?
There has been a lot of effort made in this country to stockpile and be ready for a relatively large flu pandemic. The question is, how large is it? We've done a lot of thinking and research and created vaccines, but we haven't done enough in terms of pharmaceutical interventions or optimizing behaviors in the population to deal with a pandemic. ... There are very different levels of preparedness [in different parts of the country]. It depends on the people who are on the ground as well as the resources at our disposal. In general, we are much better prepared now than before 9/11 because we've invested a lot of money in research, infrastructure, and human resources able to handle such outbreaks. But I think there is little doubt that an overwhelming outbreak might be too much to handle in some areas.
Should people be doing anything in their everyday lives to avoid getting sick?
The public health system is doing what it should be doing: monitoring case by case and making sure there's no evidence of dramatically rapid spread or [infections] becoming more severe. If there were evidence that the spread was happening more quickly or there were more severe manifestations, there could be many more precautions about limiting contact and quarantining. But we're nowhere near that point now. ... People should be doing what they're doing at all times--washing hands carefully, not sneezing on each other, and adopting other good sanitary measures. The general advice is to go on with people's lives and to take precautionary measures in terms of good sanitation and hygiene.