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Plan now for flu outbreak

The World Health Organization says people in risk groups who develop swine flu will need drugs like Tamiflu to fight the virus.
The World Health Organization says people in risk groups who develop swine flu will need drugs like Tamiflu to fight the virus.
Michael Probst, Associated Press

The biggest danger with the swine flu may be that Americans are growing fatigued of the warnings and will begin to tune out the cautions.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released an 86-page report this week that finally puts some real numbers to how bad the virus could get this fall, as schools again fill up with children. The report outlines only possibilities; it does not make predictions. But the possibilities are based on what happened during previous pandemics, and they may be conservative, especially if the virus mutates and becomes more lethal.

The stark figures are these: Half the U.S. population could become infected; 1.8 million could require hospitalization; and 90,000 — mostly children and young adults — could die.

By themselves, those numbers are eye-popping. But consider that the garden-variety, seasonal flu kills 30,000 to 40,000 people in a typical year and sends 200,000 to the hospital. What makes swine flu so devastating is that it preys on young people.

Utahns have no excuse for not taking this disease seriously. This state has been hit hard already by swine flu cases, mostly during spring and summer months when people don't ordinarily catch the flu. Utahns also know that the vast majority of cases have been mild, requiring only a few days of bed rest. Whether this early experience will give enough Utahns immunity so the state will not be hit hard this fall and winter remains to be seen. The biggest value of reports such as these, however, is that they give businesses and health-care providers a basis from which to plan.

If, at the peak of the outbreak, 300,000 Americans need intensive care, that would place a huge burden on the nation's hospitals. Businesses may have trouble functioning with large numbers of people staying home sick. Governments may have trouble providing adequate police or fire protection. Now is the time to begin planning for ways to cope.

It's also the time to begin concentrating on preventive measures.

The government is working hard to expedite the production of a vaccine, but it must first undergo vigorous clinic tests to ensure it does not cause harm. The nation has a huge timing problem in this regard. The first shots may not be available until mid-October, but people will need a series of at least two shots, spread at least three weeks apart, before immunity takes effect. Health officials say the disease may peak in October.

That means everyone's best defense is cleanliness. Wash hands constantly. Keep sick children home.

The swine flu won't be the end of the world. Far from it. But any disease that attacks young, healthy people deserves to be treated with respect.