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Our Views: There is danger in flu frenzy fallout
Hysteria often was over the top, but now public could take it too lightly
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Remain calm; all is well. It is now safe to climb out of the storm shelter, remove your gas masks and breathe the air.

No, the swine flu threat will not eradicate humankind, at least not in the next few weeks. Health officials have tried to strike a delicate balance between sounding the alarm and avoiding panic, an age-old link that's hard to break. Yet we continue to get mixed messages on how dangerous this flu strain is and its long-term impact.

That's going to happen sometime. When a disease emerges and spreads quickly, some uncertainty is natural. Call it the Fog of Flu. If health officials knew all there was to know about infectious diseases, influenza would have been rendered all but extinct, like polio and smallpox.

What is more disturbing is the reaction by some government and school officials, members of the broadcast media and regular folks that could only be described as hysteria. More dangerous is the backlash to that frothed-up frenzy, which may lead to careless indifference to what is now seen as an overhyped threat.

To review a few facts: Recently, a new strain of flu, dubbed H1N1 (pork producers prefer that to "swine flu," which hurts sales of breakfast sausage) spread quickly, starting in Mexico City and moving through that nation, then into the United States and other countries. By week's end, the number of confirmed cases worldwide was more than 3,400 in 29 counties, including several U.S. states, leading to 49 deaths. The virus's fast spread raised fears of a worldwide pandemic that would rival the deadly outbreaks of 1918, 1957 and 1968.

The medical establishment was put on full alert. Schools closed at reports of infected students. Public events were canceled to contain the spread, including many Cinco de Mayo festivities in North America.

Health organizations provided updates and prevention tips (sing "Happy Birthday" as you wash your hands), trusting that an informed public will remain rational.

To their credit, Gainesville and Hall County officials took the right approach to urge preparedness but calm. District 2 Public Health Director David Westfall helped coordinate the local response, while school nurses were urged to monitor students closely for symptoms, especially those recently returned from Mexico.

Local school officials sent letters home to parents assuring them that schools were keeping an eye on the situation. That's how it should be handled.

But elsewhere, some reactions went to extremes, ratcheting up Chicken Little fears that drowned out all reason.

One metro Atlanta student wore a face mask to school and was sent home. When a private school student in Henry County was diagnosed with the virus, the school decided to shut down for two weeks. It reopened three days later after federal officials urged parents simply to keep their ill students at home. Well, duh.

Cable news networks broadcast the coming plague 24/7, ramping up the fear even as they tried to keep us informed. Face it, it doesn't matter that the chatting doctor on the screen is offering reassurance if the graphic below his chin reads "Deadly Flu Outbreak" in bright red letters. People see that and freak out.

And a poll late in the week showed that 10 percent of Americans stopped hugging and kissing their loved ones, which is sad timing with Mother's Day upon us.

In an age of terrorist attacks, close calls with asteroids and a faltering economy, fear stalks every corner. In such a time, it's too easy to launch panic with the latest "end is near" scenario. Yet the flip side to that is the danger that an overblown reaction might lull us to sleep against what still could turn out to be a dangerous pandemic.

So far, this flu doesn't appear to be any worse than the regular seasonal variety we deal with nearly every winter. Few who were infected have become seriously ill, and the death count remains lower than that of a normal flu season. And seniors who often are more susceptible to flu bugs seem to have some natural immunity to this particular strain.

So far. Because the first outbreak has fizzled, it's easy to laugh it off as no big deal. But the World Health Organization says a large-scale spread still is possible, reaching perhaps 2 billion people. There are worries that the strain could fade for awhile only to return stronger and more deadly later in the year during the usual flu season.

Also be aware that there are other fallouts to a major disease outbreak. In addition to the human toll, Mexico's economy took a huge hit with so many people unable to work or shop normally. In a time of recession, even a short-term epidemic can have a powerful effect.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, communities everywhere have played "what if" scenarios for everything from bombings to chemical attacks and beyond. But a key part of that strategy should be not to "cry wolf" too often, lest you lose the public's trust. A good example of that came in the years following 9/11, when the federal government's color-coded terror alerts became a national joke and were tuned out by most everyone.

We've seen before that Americans will respond with courage and resolve in a crisis. But if officials in charge label everything as a crisis, they'll be ignored. That's why the lesson of this flu scare should be examined at all levels, from the White House down to local municipal and school authorities.

Calm and focused is always the best approach, whatever the challenge we face. Now that we've seen both extremes in the recent flu scare, let's hope we all react better when the next danger arrives.

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