Crossposted from TIME’s Wellness blog, because I find flu fascinating:
So sayeth the World Health Organization (WHO)—and they should know, since they were the ones who declared a full, phase six-level pandemic a little more than a year ago. Now it’s done—this morning WHO head Dr. Margaret Chan announced that the group’s emergency committee of top flu experts had convinced her that the pandemic had largely run its course. At this point the virus has spread so far that many people in all age groups have some immunity to the microbe, even as transmissions of other flu viruses—like the H3N2 that was the dominant strain before H1N1/A appeared—are rising again. After the deaths of at least 18,449 people worldwide—and likely far more—since the pandemic began in April 2009, it was time to stand down.
That doesn’t mean that the H1N1/A virus that caused the pandemic has disappeared. It’s still out there, and it’s still infecting people. But a pandemic occurs when a new virus can rapidly spread among a population that has little to no immunity to it. That’s not the case with H1N1/A any longer—the pattern of infection should resemble that of normal seasonal flu, with some people still immune and some falling ill.
Given the almost hysterical volume of the early media reports when H1N1/A first appeared—and TIME doesn’t entirely escape blame—the reaction to the pandemic might seem over the top. Indeed, governments have already been dumping stocks of unused H1N1/A vaccine—the same vaccine citizens were clamoring for a year ago. There have been repeated complaints that the WHO overhyped the pandemic, and an investigation by the British Medical Journal published in June alleged that key scientists advising the WHO on the pandemic also received paid work for pharmaceutical companies that sold flu antiviral drugs and vaccines. (The WHO responded that commercial interests had no impact on pandemic response planning.)
But while the WHO might have appeared to overdo H1N1/A, given how generally weak it turned out to be—though it worth remembering that this virus did strike young victims at an unusually high rate—in reality there was little way of knowing that it wouldn’t get worse, as Chan said this morning:
Pandemics are unpredictable and prone to deliver surprises. No two pandemics are ever alike. This pandemic has turned out to be much more fortunate than what we feared a little over a year ago.This time around, we have been aided by pure good luck. The virus did not mutate during the pandemic to a more lethal form. Widespread resistance to oseltamivir did not develop. The vaccine proved to be a good match with circulating viruses and showed an excellent safety profile.
Thanks to extensive preparedness and support from the international community, even countries with very weak health systems were able to detect cases and report them promptly.
Had things gone wrong in any of these areas, we would be in a very different situation today.
For now, flu hunters will go back to looking for the next new strain, the another new mutation. And there’s no guarantee that the next time we’ll get off so lightly.