The World Health Organization officially declared the swine flu a global pandemic Thursday, the first time it has done so with a flu variety since the Hong Kong flu of 1968.
WHO officials had been worried over the past couple months that such a declaration could cause global panic. Now, they say, they are worried about people becoming complacent about the swine flu and future flu problems.
Those worries may be justified.
The Hong Kong flu in 1968 killed an estimated 1 million people. Ordinary flu bugs cause from 250,000 to 500,000 deaths each year. The influenza epidemic of 1918 may have killed as many as 50 million people.
In contrast, the swine flu is believed to have infected nearly 30,000 people worldwide, but had killed only 141 as of Thursday. Most people who contract it suffer only mild symptoms that they can treat at home without special medication.
Furthermore, while the disease has gone global, it appears to be diminishing in some areas. New reported cases in Mexico, where the disease was first identified, have dropped to a tenth of what they were at the height of the outbreak in April.
That doesn’t mean WHO is wrong. Its pandemic declaration addresses only how fast a disease is spreading and where, not the severity of the disease. And the swine flu has quickly moved from Mexico, the United States and Canada to South America, Asia and Europe. WHO says cases have been diagnosed in 74 countries, and many may go unreported.
In issuing the pandemic declaration, WHO said it will ask drug companies to accelerate production of swine flu vaccines, and work with nations around the globe to contain it.
But there are dangers from overreacting. When the swine flu was all over the news in this country in late April, schools were closed and events canceled in some localities.
Vice President Joe Biden famously warned people about traveling on planes and trains.
In Hong Kong this week, the government ordered all primary schools closed for two weeks, even though only a dozen cases of the flu have turned up among students.
As people around the world come to understand the relatively mild consequences of swine flu, many won’t understand WHO’s criteria for declaring a pandemic. But they will remember the media hype that initially accompanied the outbreak.
As a result, the next thing likely to spread at pandemic speed may be complacency.