[Viewpoint] Fight against a mutating foe

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[Viewpoint] Fight against a mutating foe

The swine influenza outbreak in Mexico has prompted a public health emergency around the world and is reminiscent of an outbreak in the United States more than 30 years ago.

In January 1976, several soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, were infected with the virus and one died. By March, more than 100 soldiers had been infected, but no one was sure if the virus would cause a pandemic.

Despite opposition, the United States government decided to develop a vaccine and carry out mass immunizations. About 150 million doses of a vaccine were produced and 45 million people were inoculated by Dec. 16 of that year, until the program ran into controversy following alleged side effects of the vaccine.

It is possible for an animal influenza virus to infect a human, but this is not a frequent occurrence. Only one or two human infections of swine influenza are reported every year.

But the animal virus may mutate, making it easier to infect humans. A global pandemic is on our hands when a lot of people in several countries fall sick as a result of the infection.

Avian influenza viruses that had mutated caused the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Asian influenza in 1957 and the Hong Kong influenza crisis in 1968.

The 1918 outbreak killed about 40 million worldwide.

Experts say a new strain of influenza appears every 10 to 40 years. Since the pandemic of 1968, more than 40 years have passed, and experts are concerned about the possible appearance of a new strain virulent enough to create a pandemic.

While the international community has been worrying about the H5N1 avian influenza virus, the H1N1 swine influenza virus suddenly thrust itself into the limelight.

We still don’t have an accurate picture of the characteristics of the swine influenza strain causing alarm around the world. Medical experts assume that an existing swine influenza virus has mixed with human and avian influenza viruses and mutated into a new strain.

The variant virus is believed to be highly contagious, but it remains to be seen how deadly the disease is. It is not known if the variant virus will cause a global pandemic.

But the situation appears to be more serious than the 1976 case in the United States, which is why countermeasures for an emergency must be established to prepare for the worst possible scenario.

For now, the assumption should be that swine influenza is deadly and that a global pandemic is possible.

The priority is of course to stop the virus entering Korea from nations suffering contagions, such as Mexico, as well as slowing down the influx of the virus.

To this end, inspections must be beefed up at airports and ports.

People showing symptoms of the disease within a week of a visit to an area that might harbor the virus must see a doctor immediately and receive proper treatment for their own sake and others.

Of course, being so contagious, it is almost impossible to stop the virus from working itself into a given population.

It seems that the disease has entered Korea, which is why the government must take further measures to slow the disease down. The public will be asked to refrain from holding gatherings and going on trips, and schools will most likely shut down.

Most of all, personal hygiene will be critical. We should wash our hands frequently and refrain from sneezing and coughing too close to others. For that matter, we should avoid crowded places if the disease spreads.

In addition, health authorities must increase its stockpile of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and seriously consider the need to develop a vaccine.

It is important that the government provide sufficient financial support to implement these policies.

by Lee Hoan-jong

The writer is a professor in the department of pediatrics at Seoul National University Children’s Hospital. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.
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