Leading article: Shore up the world's flu defences

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This week's outbreak of swine flu has provoked some alarming predictions from medical scientists about the toll a pandemic could take on human life. Some feel that the tone of these predictions has been hyperbolic and unhelpful.

We should certainly resist the urge to mindless panic. But our health authorities are quite right to take the threat seriously. There are some simple realities about this illness which underpin the concerns of the medical profession. The first is that it is spread by a newly mutated virus against which the vast majority of the global population has no natural immunity. The second is that it is extremely contagious.

In time, a vaccine will be produced, but the virus can move ominously fast in the meantime. The fact that it has appeared in 11 countries since the first known case in Mexico early last month shows how quickly it can spread. And the news in recent days of the contraction of swine flu by individuals who did not travel to Mexico (where the virus would appear to have originated) is a significant step in its progression.

It is, of course, good news that some patients have already recovered from swine flu. But, in the event of a pandemic, there could be many – possibly millions – with weakened immune systems who do not pull through.

The objective of governments should be to try to prevent swine flu becoming a pandemic and to deal with the disease effectively if it does. Our own Government appears to be taking the right precautionary measures by isolating patients and launching a public information campaign emphasising the need for hygiene.

By resisting demands for mass distribution of the anti-viral medication Tamiflu, ministers and health officials are also behaving sensibly. There is a danger that swine flu will recede in the warm summer months, but return with a vengeance in the winter flu season. The Government is right to hold back its anti-viral supplies for such circumstances. On a global level, the key is co-operation between governments to help those nations with fewer resources to cope with the virus. This is not charity, but self-interest. Faced with a potential pandemic, the world's defences are only as strong as their weakest links

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