Editorial: Swine flu finally arrives

It took a while, but the swine flu has finally arrived on Whidbey Island.

The swine flu scare originated in Mexico toward the end of March and its spread was considered inevitable. Fortunately, the danger of the swine flu virus, more accurately referred to as H1N1, was overstated. What at first appeared to be an unusually deadly flu based on media reports coming out of Mexico ultimately proved to be no more dangerous than the flu that hits us ever year.

Last Wednesday, a middle school boy in Oak Harbor was confirmed to have the swine flu virus. Nobody panicked. School officials notified parents and told them to keep their children home if they appear to have flu symptoms. They commendably acted promptly and openly. A week earlier, in the first confirmed case on the island, a South Whidbey woman came down with the swine flu. Again, there was no panic, simply some recommended precautions issued by the Island County Health Department.

Local jurisdictions hit by the swine flu earlier in the outbreak acted quite differently. A single case of flu would close entire schools, which happened everywhere from New York City to Texas to Seattle. But as more information became available the panic level subsided and by late May, it was widely known that swine flu was not a particularly dangerous public health threat.

There were, however, lessons to be learned from the swine flu outbreak of 2009. Foremost is that the U.S. government is slow to act and reluctant to take effective measures in the face of an outbreak. Other governments, from China and Japan to Europe, acted much more quickly to isolate and examine those who might be swine flu carriers. In this case, the U.S. approach proved benign, but one wonders what would happen if a deadly outbreak of some disease should occur. Would the U.S. act too slowly, concerned first about the financial impact on business on commerce? Judging by the swine flu reaction, the answer is probably yes. The philosophy of the mayor of Amity Island in “Jaws” still prevails in America.

Next time there’s an outbreak, listen to the government’s recommendations but decide for yourself what precautions to take. The rapid spread of the swine flu virus with no real effort to slow its progress suggests that our government will probably once again put financial interests ahead of public health.