Editorial: The swine flu warning

Whidbey Island residents couldn’t help but feel a little bit helpless when the swine flu epidemic started moving our way from Mexico.

All around us, swine flu cases were popping up, starting in Seattle and Snohomish County. Even Skagit County had one suspected case as of Sunday. It’s seemingly only a matter of time before the virus makes its way across the bridge and takes up residence inside a Whidbey Island resident.

Fortunately, at this point this particular strain of the swine flu does not appear to be any more dangerous than the typical flu that hits us each winter. But that’s nothing to sneeze at. The flu take a huge toll each year in terms of days lost at school and on the job, and in simple human misery. And every year a few weakened individuals succumb to the disease. But we can take comfort in the fact that present flu viruses making the rounds don’t appear to be especially dangerous. Some types of flu have killed millions worldwide, and every year it’s feared that another deadly strain will develop in some pig farm or chicken coop somewhere in the world. The question is, are we prepared if this should happen?

Judging from the present swine flu reaction, we’re prepared in terms of communication. News spreads quickly, and on Whidbey Island the Health Department was forwarding information and doctors were keeping a close watch for possible swine flu victims. School were prepared to take action and follow the Health Department’s advice if a swine flu case should occur.

But most of the responsibility of minimizing an epidemic, be it the flu or some other disease, rests with federal and state officials, and to be fully prepared they need the support of the public and elected officials. Public health agencies have to be sufficiently funded to prevent diseases when possible and to be fully prepared in case of an outbreak. This means plenty of medicine on-hand, and sufficient health care providers and hospital beds to meet the demands of an emergency.

The Mexican swine flu epidemic has been scary, but it may prove a blessing if it encourages Americans to care more about public health and make sure that we’re adequately prepared for any eventuality. The swine flu serves as a timely warning that it could happen here, and it will if we’re not prepared.

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