There it is, right in the headline: “Ottawa recommends against non-essential travel to Mexico.” It seems this is another classic case of overblown fears and media sensationalism. Surely we should be shaking our heads at paranoid government advisories.
It’s hard to say. At the time of writing, some 152 Mexican deaths were being attributed to the new strain of flu (although these numbers aren’t confirmed yet). Some 2,000 seem to be infected. In a country of well over 100 million people spread over 2 million square kilometers, the odds of meeting an infected person seem slim. Further, the virus is only fatal if medical attention isn’t sought early enough. Compare this to the common, seasonal flu, which kills on average 4,000 Mexicans annually.
Still, there exists a real danger that the virus could mutate further. Some strains seem to be more deadly than others, which might explain where there have been no deaths outside of Mexico (yet). One possible development would involve a strain that survives for longer out of the host, allowing it to transfer between people without close contact. Remember that scene in Outbreak when the camera flies through the air ducts and Dustin Hoffman looks up at you all shocked and breathes: “It’s airborne.” Yeah, like that.
The point, then, is that some of the overblown media hysteria might actually accomplish something. The SARS panic in 2003, as well as the perpetual bird flu fears, have left governments well prepared for this sort of outbreak. Ottawa has enough antivirul medication for full treatment for over 5 million people, a sixth of the country. Ontario has enough for a quarter of the province’s people. Public events are being cancelled in Mexico City, and vacationers are monitoring their symptoms.
So while this isn’t a time for panic or fear, it is a time for diligence. This whole thing will probably disappear slowly and we’ll forget all about it. The cynics will feel vindicated, deriding the governments and news organizations that treated the situation so seriously. What those critics are ignoring, however, is how much worse things could have been if we weren’t on top of it. The fear of a massive pandemic is not irrational – especially if it spurs international cooperation to nip the outbreak in the bud.