There is a fine line authorities face in any public health crisis between responding to a threat and inflaming it. So far, the nation's political leaders and public health establishment have responded appropriately to the spread of swine flu in the United States and abroad.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that 64 cases of swine flu had been confirmed in five states. (State authorities reported four additional cases in what would be a total of six states.) Most of the U.S. cases were confirmed in New York City. A majority of those were traced to a Queens high school whose students had visited Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, where the virus is blamed for 152 deaths.
Whether the new infections reaching beyond Mexico amount to the makings of a pandemic remain to be seen. The World Health Organization raised its threat level this week as new cases were reported in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. But the virus has not been blamed for any deaths outside Mexico, and most of the hospitalizations to date have been characterized as minor.
It is critical in these early days for the world community to work together. What worries global health experts are the signs that the virus is establishing itself in communities, where it could cause even larger outbreaks. In elevating its pandemic alert, WHO determined the outbreak was being sustained by human-to-human transmission, making it harder to contain. The global community needs to identify the source of the outbreak and ensure that nations affected have the equipment, medicine and plans in place to keep the virus from spreading further.
Political leaders and business groups also need to be careful not to heighten public anxiety. While the United States, Canada and other nations have discouraged nonessential travel to Mexico, they are right not to call for travel bans or border closings. Nations will accomplish more by keeping trade, political relations and the lines of communication open. Cuba's decision Tuesday to suspend flights to Mexico and a decision by Carnival Cruise Lines to suspend stops there are, at the least, premature. There is no way in today's global environment to quarantine a nation after the fact. The world community is better equipped after the SARS outbreak of 2003 to handle this crisis. President Barack Obama and the nation's governors have done a good job of ensuring that the public health care systems are prepared and the public is kept informed. Both may be even more essential in the days ahead.