WHO raises global pandemic alert level to Phase 5; first swine flu fatality outside Mexico.

WHO raises global pandemic alert level to Phase 5; first swine flu fatality outside Mexico.

WHO raises global pandemic alert level to Phase 5; first swine flu fatality outside Mexico.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 30 2009 6:41 AM

One Step Away From Full-On Pandemic

It was supposed to be President Obama's big 100th-day party, but swine flu has taken over. Everyone leads with the World Health Organization warning that a global pandemic of the A/H1N1 virus appears imminent. The Geneva-based U.N. agency raised its global pandemic alert level to Phase 5 "because the virus appears to be spreading easily person-to-person and cases are appearing that have no link to Mexico," explains USA Today. The next level, Phase 6, means a pandemic is ongoing, and WHO officials made it clear that's where they think we're headed. "All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparation plans," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. The first death outside of Mexico was reported yesterday in Texas, where a 23-month-old boy from Mexico City died this week at a Houston-area hospital. The Washington Postpoints out that increasing the alert level "could prompt a variety of measures, including more intensive efforts to identify cases and stricter measures to prevent the illness's spread, such as discouraging or banning public gatherings."

The number of known cases in the United States is now at least 91 from 10 states, while Mexican officials say as many as 159 people may have died from the virus. The New York Timespoints out that while the WHO urged calm, Chan "at times spoke as if a pandemic had already begun." Speaking to reporters, Chan said: "The biggest question right now is this: How severe will the pandemic be?" The Los Angeles Timesis by far the most optimistic and points out that experts seem to be coming to the conclusion that, in its current form, the H1N1 virus "isn't shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics." Although the virus does appear to spread easily, it doesn't seem like its mortality rate will get anywhere close to the typical flu season that kills 36,000 people in the United States. The Wall Street Journalpoints out that some Mexican doctors believe many more people had the virus than the official numbers indicate, "suggesting it could turn out to be a relatively mild pandemic." But, of course, the flu virus is very unpredictable, and we're still at the early stage, so it could just as easily mutate and become much deadlier.

Advertisement

As it stands now, swine flu "may not even do as much damage as the run-of-the-mill flu outbreaks that occur each winter without much fanfare," notes the LAT. At first many were worried about what appeared to be striking similarities between the current virus and the 1918 flu that killed approximately 50 million people. But upon closer analysis, experts are feeling optimistic about what they are seeing. "There are certain characteristics, molecular signatures, which this virus lacks," an influenza expert tells the LAT. There are suggestions that those who were exposed to the 1957 flu pandemic may have some automatic immunity from the current virus, which might explain why swine flu appears to be particularly deadly for young people. And, as has been emphasized before, experts cautioned against inferring that the increasing number of cases means the virus is spreading particularly quickly. "You don't ever find anything that you don't look for," a molecular virologist said.

Despite these encouraging signs, the WHO made it clear it's not taking any chances, particularly since influenza viruses are "notorious for their rapid mutation and their unpredictable behavior," Chan said, calling for global solidarity. "After all, it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic." President Obama said the virus is "cause for deep concern but not panic," and he used a news conference to mark his 100 days in office to advocate for some common-sense health safeguards that everyone can take. The president urged people to wash their hands frequently, cover their mouths when coughing, and stay home if they are sick. "It sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference," he said.

In a separate front-page piece, the NYT notes that while the WHO said that "containment is no longer a feasible option" and countries should be focusing their efforts on "mitigation," many are ignoring that advice. "The globe is a confusing welter of bans, advisories and alerts on some pork and some people," notes the paper. For the most part, experts agree that closing borders isn't going to help stop the spread of the virus. Questioned by lawmakers, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the decision to not close the border with Mexico, saying it "would be a very, very heavy cost for what epidemiologists tell us would be marginal benefit." But others insist that containment is the only thing that has been proven to work, and it's what has prevented the H5N1 avian flu from spreading as well as stopped the 1976 swine flu from reaching the wider population.

The WP goes inside with a dispatch from a border town in California that notes people are acting as though the American side is simply safer, "complicating efforts to contain the outbreak." On the Mexican side, face masks and rubber gloves are ubiquitous, but 50 feet to the north they are a rare sight. People wearing face masks in Mexico, often take them off as soon as they cross the border. "They all do," a border agent said. "Defeats the whole purpose."

The WSJ goes high with, and the WP off-leads, news that talks between government officials and Chrysler's creditors broke down, making it virtually certain that the automaker will be filing for bankruptcy today. The WSJ hears word that administration officials are optimistic all their preparation for this eventuality will pay off and Chrylser will be able to get through bankruptcy court "perhaps in a matter of weeks." The Obama administration tried to convince Chrysler's lenders to accept $2.25 billion in cash in exchange for forgiving $6.9 billion in debt, but they refused. The WP details that under the administration's strategy, Fiat would take over management of the company, and the U.S. and Canadian government would pump $10 billion into the company. The NYT points out that Chrysler's bankruptcy filing "could serve as a preview of what a filing by General Motors might look like."

The WP and NYT front new numbers that show the U.S. economy contracted at "its steepest pace in 50 years" (NYT) in the six months ending in March, but analysts are forecasting better times ahead. In the first quarter of the year, output declined by a 6.1 percent annual rate, but household consumption increased. At the same time, businesses decreased their inventories, suggesting production will eventually have to increase. "The situation is not nearly as dark as the first-quarter number suggests," one analyst said. That's not to say things will be turning around quickly, but many think the declines won't be nearly as severe in the coming months, although unemployment is likely to continue increasing, until the economy begins to come back early next year. "A month ago, people were still worried about the next Great Depression," an investment strategist tells the Post. "Now there's a much more positive tone in society at large and in investors' minds."

In the LAT's op-ed page, Joseph Margulies, co-counsel for Abu Zubaydah, writes that his client "paid with his mind" for the abuses he suffered during interrogations conducted by the CIA. Partly as a a result of injuries he suffered fighting Communists in Afghanistan, which were exacerbated by the American interrogation techniques and extended isolation, "Abu Zubaydah's mental grasp is slipping away." He now "suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage." He is extremely sensitive to sounds—the "slightest noise drives him nearly insane"—and has suffered around 200 seizures over the last two years. He also can't remember key details about his life. "Gradually," writes Margulies, "his past, like his future, eludes him."

The WSJ takes a look at how Jacob Zuma's overwhelming victory in last week's elections has left one vexing question: Who will be South Africa's first lady? Zuma, an avowed polygamist, has been married four times and now has two wives as well as one fiancee. "It's Big Love, South African style," declares the paper. Zuma's first wife, whom he married in 1975, defended the practice, saying that "if there's respect between the husband and the wives and among the wives themselves, and if he's able to treat us equally, then it's not hard." But now that Zuma is president it seems he'll have to choose since there's supposed to be only one first lady to carry out official duties. The first wife jokingly said she has first dibs on the position but insisted that nothing has been decided yet.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.