As Swine Flu Cases Multiply in U.S. and Mexico, Concerns Deepen

Published on
April 24, 2009

Public health officials are increasingly concerned about a possible pandemic amid reports of hundreds of new cases of swine flu in Mexico that have killed up to 60 people. Eight swine flu cases have been reported in the United States, in California and Texas. Mexican authorities are taking drastic measures to contain the swine flu outbreak, closing schools and universities in Mexico City. DNA analysis of the some of the American and Mexican swine flu samples shows that they have identical genetic signatures.

In an April 21 post, I wrote that journalists should be keeping an eye on what just days ago was a small-scale investigation into swine flu that mysteriously struck two Southern California children, neither of whom had been near pigs nor each other. Scientists have long worried about influenza that can "jump" from animals to humans, and this current swine flu outbreak, with its unique genetic strain never before seen in humans, could be a precursor to a much larger pandemic.

Now, as concerns over swine flu mount, it's time to start thinking about how you can cover this developing public health story for your community. Check out one example of this kind of coverage here.

What is your local public health department doing to educate doctors and residents about swine flu? Have any samples from potentially-infected patients been submitted to your local or state public health department for testing? What's the difference between epidemics and pandemics, and how does each start? What's the best way to prevent the spread of swine flu? If you live in a community where people frequently travel back and forth to Mexico, are they postponing such travel? Will airlines screen passengers for visible illness, as they did during SARS outbreaks several years ago?

Answering these questions can go a long way toward raising appropriate awareness about swine flu and preventing the spread of disease - while preventing unnecessary fear in your community.

Covering disease outbreaks without being alarmist is a challenge. Stick to the science. If you're not on U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) email list, get on it now by clicking here. Here's the latest MMWR swine flu update. The World Health Organization, which has activated its global epidemic operations center, is disseminating up-to-date information. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP)'s website is an excellent place to find updates and sources.

I'll write more about covering infectious disease outbreaks in future posts. I have a feeling we're going to be following this public health story for quite a while.