Flu Fighters Not Content with Calm

While some preparedness funding goes for standard health programs of the sort that inspire the public's confidence in our health agencies, other money goes into allowing officials to posture, to keep reassuring the public that they're not asleep at the switch -- even when the public isn't asking. Preparedness is what officials do in order to make sure the funds don't wander away and that nobody claims they're being soft on flu. That's why you're hearing about flu buddy schemes, and why you hear a different story about school closings every few weeks.

Nobody knows what part H1N1 flu will play in the seasonal flu scene to come. But in the end, the difference between a mild flu outbreak and one in which a lot of people die is going to rest on two things. One is the virus, and it's impossible to predict right now what strains, with what virulence, will be circulating. The other is garden-variety disease control. Public health measures to deal with flu already exist, and require no crystal-ball gazing to make ready.

Facing Realities About Flu

We're going to have flu this winter, no matter what. Thousands will die. That's what happens every year. That it's only thousands, and not hundreds of thousands, is a triumph of public health planning (That it's still thousands, after a century of flu outbreaks, is evidence of a failure of public health imagination, not a failure of preparedness. But that's a story for another day).

The difference between a serious outbreak, with more deaths, and a mild one, with fewer, is certainly not going to depend on flu buddy schemes.

Philip Alcabes, PhD, is associate professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College and the Graduate Schools, the City University of N.Y. He is the author of "Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to Avian Flu (PublicAffairs 2009).

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