Friday, May 01, 2009

Swine Flu Fatigue?

Dear Readers, I apologize for not posting since Monday. My work life has been consumed with swine flu and its effects here on the local level, and Digital Doorway has suffered from a lack of attention. This situation will now be remedied.

So, a lot of people are already complaining of Swine Flu Fatigue. Of course, the media has latched onto this breaking news, disseminating information---and misinformation---throughout the 24-hour news cycle that is part and parcel of our 21st century lives. Still, a novel virus making its way around the world is certainly cause for concern and conversation, and the public health infrastructure is certainly responding as it should in such a circumstance.

On Twitter, on grocery lines, and in workplaces, various individuals claim that the government is overreacting, that public health officials are making a mountain out of molehill, and that the media is fanning the flames for the benefit of increased revenue in dark economic times. But I must beg to differ.

As a (relatively novice) public health official, I am impressed and heartened by the rapid, comprehensive and thoughtful reaction by the global public health community to this new viral threat. I have taken part in numerous conference calls with the CDC, with our state Department of Public Health, FEMA, and other players, and I can see that officials are acting responsibly and appropriately to a credible threat.

When Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans and our government was essentially asleep at the wheel, FEMA and other emergency management agencies fell down on the job, and their negligence and slow response certainly resulted in increased suffering, loss and death in the ensuing days during and after the storm. In retrospect, the public and media called for answers, recognizing clearly that preemption of calamity is an essential aspect of managing such situations before they mushroom out of control. The initial Katrina response was essentially a failure, and lessons learned at that time are still being analyzed and digested.

With swine flu, we have another opportunity for the machines of government, public health, surveillance and emergency preparedness to swing into action before all-out calamity strikes. While the current measures and attention being paid to the situation may appear to some to be somewhat overblown, one must only imagine what we might all say at some future date if the government's reaction to the early stages of the outbreak were less robust.

If this indeed becomes a global pandemic of massive scale in the months to come, it will be certain that we will be thankful that the assets and resources made available by the government and associated agencies were activated so early in the development of this viral process.

With antiviral medications at the ready and vast amounts of information being made available to the general public, the media, and the medical community on an up-to-the-minute basis, we can rest assured that the situation is being monitored vigorously by those in positions to make clear and intelligent decisions.

Here on the public health front lines, we local boards of health rely on the federal and state governments to guide us as we answer the public's questions, assuage their fears, and prepare our own local assets for appropriate and timely response. We are very appreciative of the responsiveness of the CDC and our other response partners, and without their guidance, this process would be infinitely more challenging.

In a few weeks or months, if the pandemic proves to be short-lived, we will all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that we were properly prepared for a feasible and credible threat to public health. While some would potentially point fingers and make light of our credibility vis-a-vis such threats, we will still maintain our thankfulness that we reacted so swiftly and comprehensively based on the information available at the time the outbreak began.

If the outbreak does indeed develop into a larger-scale pandemic, then our reactions will also have been proven to be prudent and correct, and we will be well prepared to face the mounting threat.

Whatever the outcome, I see the national and global response to swine flu as an excellent example of how the public health infrastructure can mount a credible and rapid response on the local, regional, national and global levels when needed. This is a test---no matter the outcome---and in my view, the reaction to swine flu has been an excellent example of prudence, intelligence, and collective preemptive action at a time when such qualities are sorely needed and duly delivered.
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