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Editorial: Take a dose of caution

Everyone from news reporters to government health officials to the vice president has been accused of fear mongering during the recent spread of swine flu.
One local man, in particular, might find all the hype a bit overblown. Cameron Kirker was quarantined in Hong Kong recently not because he has swine flu, or even symptoms of the virus, but because he happened to stay in a hotel visited by someone who did have the flu.
That sounds like an overreaction on the part of Kirker’s hosts ó and maybe it is ó but they’re trying to protect a densely populated city that in 2003 lost 300 of its residents to SARS.
Elsewhere in the world, health agencies have been on edge about swine flu not because it’s a particularly virulent strain, but because it is a new one, emerging last month in Mexico and now confirmed in more than 3,100 people in 24 countries, according to the World Health Organization. And as you can see from the story on the front of today’s Insight section, although researchers know a lot about the evolution and transmission of flu strains, there’s also a lot they don’t know or understand about this latest permutation of the virus.
By Friday, two deaths had been linked to the flu in the U.S. One of those was a toddler visiting from Mexico and both victims had other chronic health problems, the latest reports say. Many rightly point out that the numbers worldwide are nowhere near the thousands who die in the U.S. alone every year during the normal flu season.
But it could be that some cases of swine flu, perhaps even some deaths, have been prevented by health organizations’ intense focus on the illness and media outlets and others keeping it in front of the public.
Local government agencies, doctors and travel agents are getting it right when they urge their clients to take precautions, but not to panic. There’s no reason to. North Carolina has confirmed only a handful of swine flu cases and none have been in this area.
The Centers for Disease Control isn’t recommending schools close if swine flu cases are suspected and the World Health Organization isn’t recommending travel restrictions.
So, feel free not to be afraid. Leave the surgical masks at home. Take the bus. Take a trip. But cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wash your hands often anyway. Call it good hygiene mongering.

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