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The swine flu battle

Sensible steps, not panic, are called for to contain the outbreak.

April 29, 2009

Whether the swine flu turns into a serious epidemic or never fulfills its initial global threat, the federal government rightly went into high alert and launched a search for a vaccine. Just as in 1976, this new emergence of swine flu could come to nothing -- which all of us can hope for -- but better to attack it with vigor than to understate the risk. That's because, in addition to sweeping government action (travel advisories, research and the release of antiviral drugs), limiting the outbreak also requires public knowledge and personal action (less kissing and more soap and water).

We wouldn't go as far as to applaud the overreaction among European health authorities, who asked people to avoid unnecessary travel to the United States, or Russia's ban on U.S. and Mexican pork imports. The flu can't be caught by eating pork, and several dozen U.S. flu cases -- apparently much milder than the cases in Mexico -- in a nation of 300 million people is a weak reason for bringing global travel and commerce to a panic-induced halt. A better argument is made for restricting travel from any country into and out of Mexico, where there have been more than 2,000 possible cases with widespread contamination. The best chance for minimizing the reach of the disease is containment.

But the issue of containment is fraught given the daily, ubiquitous interactions between the U.S. and Mexico and the number of Mexican nationals in this country legally or illegally at any given time. Stricter vigilance along the border is called for -- this is a health issue, not a political one -- but one of the worst reactions would be an anti-immigrant backlash born of racism and fear.

In fact, Mexican nationals in this country, regardless of their residency status, should be encouraged to stay put for now. And it is the worst possible time for California counties to respond to tight budgets by cutting health services to illegal immigrants, as some are doing. Swine flu doesn't discriminate on the basis of nationality; the public is better protected when all sick people can get to a doctor.

Other key strategies should involve putting as much manpower and money as possible into the anti-flu effort in Mexico, both as humanitarian aid and as one of the best ways to reduce the global threat. The World Bank made a good start on this with a $205-million loan to the country for medicines and better health infrastructure. But much more is needed: education, access to clean water and sanitation, and emergency medical equipment. Health authorities in the United States should see helping our neighbor as an integral part of protecting Americans. The intertwining of the two countries' fates has never been clearer.

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