Overreacting to H1N1: WHO and China Try to Banish Ghosts2 min read
With the benefit of a few weeks of perspective on the H1N1 outbreak, it’s possible to conclude that the some of the initial response qualifies as overreaction. Let’s start with the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic. Observers such as Michael Fumento have argued that the WHO adopted a “pandemic” definition that is skewed toward human transmission of animal viruses even if the transmission rate and virulence are modest compared to seasonal human flu viruses. Fumento suggests that the WHO declared a swine flu pandemic in part to justify the expenses incurred at the WHO’s behest over the past five years to ready the world for an avian flu outbreak that is still confined to people living in close proximity to infected barnyard fowl. We may be readier than ever, but is the WHO risking its credibility in an attempt to justify our readiness?
Similarly, China, haunted by its slow and clumsy handling of the SARS outbreak a few years back, is now using a heavy hand with international visitors suspected of carrying H1N1. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert citing China’s quarantine measures as posing unwarranted risks. Even slightly elevated body temperatures (as measured by remote sensing devices) have resulted in airline passengers being placed in quarantine under conditions where suitable drinking water, food and sanitation are wanting. Children have reportedly been separated from parents and communication has broken down between members of families’ travel parties. This “get tough” approach appears to be clearly out of proportion to the risks posed by H1N1 and can be traced to a desire to banish the ghost of SARS past.
As the H1N1 story continues to unfold, we hope that major players like the WHO and China find a more proportional response. Overreacting can compromise the credibility of worldwide efforts to keep us safe and produce unnecessary risks as well. Look for future posts that strive to put travel health risks into perspective.