Well, I am back from Oahu and find that in my absence, the world has returned to the brink of collapse, this time not from wayward financial systems or legions of mole men, but the devastating specter of the Swine Flu.

What is swine flu? It appears to be a variant of influenza that originates in swine, originating in Mexico.  While there’s not much evidence yet as to how contagious the swine flu virus may be between humans, the swine flu meme, however, has already infected twitter and the political blogsphere.

But how seriously do the experts take it? Consider the latest report from the WaPo, breathlessly titled, “WHO Raises Global Threat Level As Reports of Swine Flu Increase.” Reading this, you learn that the World Health Organization (WHO) has “raised its pandemic threat level from 3 to 4, two levels below a full-scale pandemic” and that cases of swine flu have spread to Israel and New Zealand. However, digging a bit deeper into the article beyond the lede, we find:

At the epicenter of the outbreak, in Mexico, the situation continued to deteriorate. Although the number of confirmed deaths remained at 20, the suspected death toll rose to 149, and at least 1,995 people had been hospitalized with pneumonia. The news prompted officials to shut down schools nationwide. The capital, Mexico City, where most of the cases have been reported, had already been brought to a virtual standstill by measures intended to contain the outbreak.

New Zealand’s health ministry said today that three people who tested positive for the virus had been part of a school group that recently visited Mexico,. Reuters reported. Officials told the news service that they were awaiting test results for the other eight people in the group but expected them to test positive as well.

The 26-year-old man found to be suffering from the virus in Israel also had just returned from Mexico, officials said. Matilda Schwartz, spokeswoman for Laniado Hospital in Netanya, said the patient remained in isolation. She said he was in good condition and improving. A second person remains under observation in a hospital in the town of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, officials said. U.S. and state health officials, meanwhile, said yesterday that the number of confirmed cases had more than doubled to 45 and recommended that Americans put off unnecessary travel to Mexico. “This is out of an abundance of caution,” said Richard E. Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“We want to be aggressive and take bold action to minimize the impact on people’s health from this infection,” Besser said during a briefing with reporters.

Most of the new U.S. cases were tied to an outbreak at a Catholic high school in New York, where more than 100 students got sick last week after several returned from a spring break trip to Mexico. Eight students were confirmed to have swine flu on Sunday, and at least 20 more were determined Monday to have the virus as well, New York officials said. The new cases are the result of additional testing and not a sign that the infection is still spreading there, Besser said. He added that all the cases were mild, except for one that required hospitalization, and that all the students had recovered.

So, this deadly killer hasn’t actually killed anyone abroad, and the deaths in mexico have been contained. The virus does not appear to be spreading and is pretty straightforward to treat.

The simple truth is that swine flu is like any other flu – the best defense against it is to wash your hands, especially before eating and drinking. Especially in Mexico, but that’s just common sense. Of course, it helps to have religious restrictions against pork in times like this (though that guy in Israel should probably feel a bit ashamed of himself). Christians, meanwhile, are due a gigantic I Told You So from pastor Joel Osteen.

(UPDATE – I was kidding above. Swine flu is like any other flu – it’s a virus, contagious like any other flu. That’s why washing your hands and covering your sneezes is a good way to stop transmission).

Incidentally, if all of this seems familiar, it’s because we went through this same routine back in the avian flu days. The inestimable Jon Stewart nicely skewered that kabob back in the day:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Health Scare – Avian Flu
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Sure, thus far there’s a worse risk of being struck by lightning than catching swine flu, but it should also be noted that the low risk to the general population so far is entirely due to the proactive measures being taken by the public health organizations. It’s easy to poke fun at the government for over-reacting, but just like volcano monitoring, pandemics are things you only need to fail to prepare for once to invite genuine catastrophe. 

And since I’m taking a turn from snark to serious here, let’s note that avian flu did actually reach a 60% human mortality rate. That was pretty serious; and swine flu is troubling because it has the same characteristics as the 1918 pandemic which was serious business. 
Related and highly recommended: interview this morning of Dr. Dennis Maki, senior epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, by Joy Cardin on WPR.
UPDATE: More on the validity of the government response, and some silliness conspiracy theories.
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