May 11, 2009 / 3:06 PM / 10 years ago

What scare? Europeans play down new flu

ROME (Reuters) - Just over two weeks since the outbreak of the H1N1 flu, some Europeans are asking whether danger was exaggerated, but the World Health Organization warned against complacency and said the worse could be yet to come.

With all but five of the 53 deaths reported in Mexico, and public health experts saying the new virus appears less severe than a seasonal flu strain, lifestyles in Europe have gone back to usual, if indeed they ever changed.

“They say it’s better to prevent than cure but I think the reaction has been alarmist. That is more the fault of the WHO (than the government),” said Sami Husein, 32, a Madrid engineer.

“There have been fewer deaths than for any normal flu, so for now I don’t understand how it could be a major problem.”

It is very rare to see anyone wearing a face mask to guard against the new flu strain, though some admit to washing their hands more often; an easy way to protect against infection.

Mindful of previous health scares, from the mad cow disease to the avian flu, where some of the initial dire predictions failed to materialize, some people remain skeptical.

“Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” 73-year old Sergio Gonnelli said as he shopped in a Rome supermarket. “There are so many other things already to fret about already. And the last time I had a flu was in the 1950s.”

But health experts warn the influenza virus’s unpredictability and ability to mutate means the public should not drop its guard and that the real danger in Europe will come in the autumn, at the start of the new “flu season.”

The WHO said the new outbreak should not be looked at in terms of weeks or months, but over a two-year cycle.

Farm group Coldiretti said that while one in 10 Italians had stopped eating pork despite reassurances the virus is not food-borne, another 12 percent was actually buying more pork because prices had fallen since the outbreak.

And the German travel association DRV said that after a wave of cancellations and reservation changes in May, trips to Mexico in June and July had been broadly confirmed.

Measures to contain the new virus outbreak vary from country to country, but most European governments have limited themselves to advising against traveling to Mexico, stocking up on antivirals and distributing information leaflets.

In Switzerland however, some companies have told employees that if they defy travel bans to Mexico they will have to take forced, unpaid leave of up to a week when they come back.

While Britain closed some schools to prevent the flu from infecting pupils, some commentators said the move was excessive.

“Politically, I’d rather be accused of overhyping something and exaggerating it ... than of not being prepared for a pandemic,” British Health Secretary Alan Johnson said.

WHO WARNS AGAINST COMPLACENCY

The WHO has confirmed 4,694 infections of the disease popularly known as swine flu and has raised its global pandemic to level 5 out of 6; signaling a pandemic was imminent.

It stresses however that the alert ladder indicates how likely the virus is to spread around the world, not how dangerous it is and warns against complacency.

One of the examples that has often come up is that of the “Spanish flu” 1918 pandemic, cited as the worst-case scenario because it killed upwards of 40 million people.

It started with a mild wave of a new virus, now identified as also H1N1, in the spring, disappeared over the summer, and came back in a much deadlier form in August.

“At this point we have no indication that we are facing a situation similar to that seen in 1918,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said last week.

“As I must stress repeatedly, this situation can change, not because we are overestimating or underestimating the situation, but simply because influenza viruses are constantly changing in unpredictable ways,” she said.

Additional reporting from Reuters bureaus in Berlin, London, Madrid, Zurich, Geneva and Paris

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