title_influenza_1.jpgThere's a bit of a "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" approach to the swine flu occurring in some corners of the blogosphere. I don't think that's quite accurate. Rather, we have nothing to fear but a lethal mutation of a pandemic influenza.

It's true that the flu is, as of now, not especially deadly. Survival rates are quite high. That's a very good thing. And there's some evidence that this flu will prove mild. Possibly even more mild than a bad flu season. But it's not the end of the story. Influenzas mutate. The question is whether it mutates out of existence or towards lethality. "Towards lethality" becomes more likely if more people catch the flu and thus more mutations emerge. So being aggressive in stopping the spread of the largely non-lethal variant is important if we want to avert the development of a more lethal strain. It's not about stopping this flu. It's about stopping what this flu can become.

But if the flu isn't currently very lethal, it does appear to be extremely infectious. The reason is simple enough: It's a new strain of flu that human beings don't have resistance against. Not only can it spread very quickly, it is spreading very quickly. We've hit five on the World Health Organization's flu threat level. It only goes up to six. Six denotes a pandemic: The flu has spread to two or more WHO regions. And most experts expect we'll be there in days.

It's true that people shouldn't panic in the sense of stockpiling ammunition and duct taping windows. But this is a situation in which a short-term overreaction might be the best strategy. That would mean that people really curtail the sort of activities that abet the spread of infection: They cancel non-essential travel, bike rather than take the subway, wash their hands obsessively, etc. It's not crazy stuff. And unlike in financial crises or recessions, where cutting spending worsens the downturn, the sensible actions for fearful individuals will actually improve the probable outcomes.

But the fact of it is, if the response works, we'll never know if we overreacted. If the one person who would have been host to the wrong mutation doesn't get the flu, it will have been a successful effort. But there's no way to track that. And there will be costs: The global economy will further suffer. But not as much as it will if we get this wrong.