Swine flu: good news so far

Colourised negative stained transmission electron micrograph of the swine flu virus Copyright: CDC/C. S. Goldsmit and A. Balish

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An editorial in Nature asks what worked in global efforts to control influenza A(H1N1) — swine flu — and what needs improving.

Lessons were learnt from dealing with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the H5N1 bird flu virus, argues the editorial. Researchers quickly and freely shared and published data on the new virus, while most health agencies communicated openly with the media and public.

Mexico, in particular, should be applauded for acting quickly to slow the virus’ spread, despite lost tourism and closed businesses. Mainstream media too, for the most part, deserve credit for not sensationalising the threat and for demystifying doubts about vaccine safety and public health responses.

Perhaps the best news is that the virus has turned out less deadly than feared — despite most of the developing world having no access to either vaccines or antiviral drugs.

But next time we may not be so lucky, suggests the editorial. Relying on just a few vaccine suppliers and a lengthy six-month production process — which involves growing the virus in eggs — presents a major technological hurdle that must be overcome, it says.

Surveillance for emerging diseases must also be stepped up. The A(H1N1) virus is thought to have been present in pigs for almost a decade, and made the jump to humans months before it was detected in Mexico.

It is fortunate that the swine flu pandemic turned out to be relatively mild, says Nature. But even so, health services were stretched to capacity and vaccines were too few. Governments and scientists must strengthen our pandemic defences, concludes the editorial.

Link to full article in Nature