The World Health Organisation’s declaration that the global spread of the H1N1 influenza virus had fulfilled the definition of a pandemic is little more than an official stamp on what has been a ground reality for several weeks. The virus, commonly called swine flu, has been confirmed to have infected nearly 28,000 people over 74 countries. Given that only people with the most serious cases get themselves tested, it is likely hundreds of thousands of others are unknowingly carrying the virus right now.
On the other hand, though it is spreading quickly, the lethality of the 21st century’s first pandemic seems to be decreasing. Given that influenza normally kills as many as half a million people every year, the H1N1’s present death toll of 141 is negligible. And the rate of deaths is decreasing rapidly. This can be attributed to the preventive steps being taken by governments and possibly because the virus itself is becoming weaker. It is noteworthy that there have been no confirmed deaths in five of the world’s seven continents, including Asia.
This hardly means any government, least of all India’s, can be complacent. As was the case with earlier global health scares, the spread of H1N1 is a reminder that the spread of airborne disease can be extraordinarily rapid thanks to air travel. Two billion people crisscross the globe in airplanes every year, allowing a disease to move from one end of the world to the other in half a day. Combined with increasing resistance among pathogens to antibiotics, the destruction of natural habitat and a warming climate it is no surprise that warnings against a new globe-spanning disease are almost an annual affair. The world has been fortunate so far. Avian flu was extremely lethal, killing nearly half the people who caught it, but infection was possible only through close contact with a bird. SARS was more contagious but less dangerous. H1N1 spreads the fastest but kills in only rare cases. India’s health authorities should imbibe the lessons of the present scares, treating them as test runs for the real nightmare: when nature throws up a pathogen as lethal as SARS and as contagious as H1N1.