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Lessons from the swine flu pandemic

February 7, 2010 |  8:09 pm

RomoX It's too soon to say if the swine flu pandemic is over, but health experts have begun to look back and survey the damage. One of the lessons from the pandemic is that pregnant women are at particularly high risk for severe complications, as is described in Monday's Los Angeles Times story, "A family left behind by the H1N1 virus." It's a story about the death of Virginia Romo, who was pregnant with her sixth child.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't conducted its own review of the pandemic. But an editorial published in the Jan. 14 issue of the journal Nature makes the first of what are sure to be several summaries of the lessons learned from the swine flu.

According to the Nature piece, the positive outcomes of the pandemic were that health researchers worldwide freely shared and published data on all aspects of the virus and its transmission. Also, most international health agencies reacted swiftly and communicated openly with the media and the public. Health officials in Mexico, in particular, "deserve credit" for alerting the world to the first outbreaks there. The news media and bloggers responded well by not sensationalizing the threat and by debunking misinformation (such as the idea that the H1N1 vaccine would be mysterious and dangerous).

On the downside, they noted, officials made predictions that the vaccine would be readily available for those who needed it the most last fall -- and that did not happen. The public health system is too reliant on a small number of vaccine suppliers, the editorial stated. Moreover, manufacturing vaccine from eggs is too slow and should be abandoned in favor of faster methods. Another problem: The swine flu virus had been circulating for at least a decade in pigs and probably jumped to humans well before it was spotted in Mexico. "That it was not spotted earlier is unacceptable," the editorial states. "Public- and animal-health communities need to help increase surveillance for emerging diseases with pandemic potential."

In short, we were lucky that the H1N1 strain was, for the most part, mild. Next time, we may not be so lucky. And, the writers note: "the danger now is that last year's relatively mild pandemic will create a false sense of security and complacency" when the next pandemic threat rolls around.

Not in everyone, however. For families victimized by H1N1, like the Romo family of Santa Ana, there is no complacency or security.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Miguel Romo of Santa Ana and baby Virginia. Credit: Don Barletti / Los Angeles Times