Many hospital emergency rooms are becoming overloaded by people concerned about the spread of the swine flu. Here is why the swine flu isn't so scary--abstracted from a 'counterpoint' article in The Wall Street Journal on May 2nd by Peter Palese, chairman of the department of microbiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY USA.
"As swine flu continues to spread, concerns are mounting about a serious pandemic. Yet, based on history and what we know about the flu virus, the threat is not as bad as it may seem.
Regular (seasonal) influenza is bad enough. These viruses come in three flavors: two kinds of influenza A (name H1N1 and H3N2, after their surface proteins) and one influenza B.
There are several concerns over the current flu. It belongs to the same H1N1 group as the 1918 pandemic virus, which killed more than 50 million people world-wide. It is readily transmitted from human to human. The swine flu virus also shows an unusual robustness in emerging outside the normal seasonal period for the virus.
Still, there is more evidence that a serious pandemic is not imminent. It lacks an important molecular signature (the protein PB1-F2) which was present in the 1918 virus and in the highly lethal H5N1 chicken viruses. If this virulence marker is necessary for an influenza virus to become highly pathogenic in humans or in chickens--then the current swine virus doesn't have what it takes to become a major killer.
Since people have been exposed to H1N1 viruses over many decades, we likely have some cross-reactive immunity against the swine virus. While it may not be sufficient to prevent illness, it may very well dampen the impact of the virus on mortality. Finally, we have a vastly improved infrastructure to deal with novel emerging diseases, including influenza.
It is prudent to prepare against swine influenza, but equally important to keep a balanced outlook and an awareness of our current capabilities."