Outside editorial: Getting over the swine flu

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009

It looks like health authorities and the public can breathe a sigh of cautious relief (covering their mouths, we hope) as new information indicates that although the flu formerly known as swine spreads easily, its severity appears on par with that of most other flu viruses.

That's not to trivialize the H1N1 strain or any other; influenza kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year. That's all the more reason why the diminished alarm doesn't present government officials with an opportunity to relax. Instead, they should build on lessons learned and work on bridging gaps in the nation's public health network.

Few of those gaps involve medical capability or communication tools. The government reacted to the flu decisively in the early days, when H1N1 appeared to be highly deadly, and was swift and organized at disseminating information. If some of those steps ultimately proved unhelpful or unnecessary -- such as calling for schools to close for two weeks if a single student fell sick -- we'd still rather see an abundance of action than a wait-and-see approach.

Where the nation's response most needs improvement is with long-term public policy. Legislation and public education campaigns should foster healthy individual actions -- having people stay home when they first start feeling sick, for instance, or getting them to wash their hands frequently. That means laws requiring paid sick leave so that ailing employees don't have to choose between losing a few days' pay or sickening their co-workers. It requires changing the way schools are funded so that they don't lose money every day a student is out sick. Under the current system, many schools discourage parents from keeping ill children at home for anything short of a significant fever. And if years of public education have managed to put a dent in cigarette smoking, surely the same method can be used to teach the benefits of plain old soap.

The greatest danger would be complacency about the toll taken by flu. Epidemiologists warn that even if this outbreak proves milder than expected, the virus could return in a more dangerous form in the fall. Hopefully, by that time a vaccine will be available. Health authorities, meanwhile, should use the current sense of urgency to call for common-sense policies that will keep us all safer.

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