Let the panic begin!

Emergency talks at the United Nations today are expected to result in the announcement the latest H1N1 swine flu virus has officially reached pandemic levels. For anyone who has been playing along at home, this comes as a foregone conclusion – the disease has probably been at a technically pandemic stage for a while, despite the World Health Organizations best efforts at better health through happy thinking.

That said, the last few weeks have seen sharp rises in cases of the H1N1 swine flu across the world. From the frozen north, where the province of Nunavut has seen serious outbreaks among a small and scattered population to the land down under, which has watched it’s number of cases triple in just the last week, no place seems safe from outbreaks of the next big thing in highly contagious illness.

The formal announcement, likely to be made today, is sure to send some folks of a more worried demeanor running for the canned food aisle. But really, it’s just a sign that worldwide organizations are taking the possibility of a serious, wide scale outbreak of the disease seriously, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.

It would appear that reports of the demise of the swine flu have been rather greatly exaggerated.

On the heels of the new H1N1 strain being confirmed in mainland China last week, more than 2,000 schools throughout Japan have closed their doors in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus. The worse news is that unlike previous cases found in Japan, this outbreak of flu has no clear connection to international travel, suggesting that the virus has already become self sustaining in the densely populated nation.

So what’s to be worried about? Probably nothing for the moment, as the A/H1N1 virus seems to be remaining highly contagious, but infrequently lethal. But it’s arrival in Asia carries with it the potential of what can only be described as a nightmare scenario.

The continuing spread of A/H1N1 throughout the world, even after the end of the traditional flu season, means that there may simply be very little we can do to prevent the continuing spread of this highly contagious strain, especially when a fresh flu season begins in earnest later this year.

Which isn’t the bad news.

The bad news is that the presence of the virus in Asia, especially in self perpetuation, means that an eventual meeting of the minds between swine flu and avian flu that remains endemic in parts of Asia is more or less a foregone conclusion. When that happens, there’s a chance for the two strains to hybridize, resulting in a new flu that combines the high human to human transmissibility of the swine flu and the staggering (60% +) human fatality rates of avian flu. Just how great that chance is is anyone’s guess. But World Health Organization Director – General Margaret Chan had this to say on the current flu situation, which she described as “the calm before the storm.”

“For the first time in humanity, we are seeing, or we may be seeing, pandemic influenza evolving in front of our eyes.”

 Now whether we can do anything effectively to prevent it is another matter.