So far, swine flu has not proved to be a serious health hazard for many people in the United States. Of those who have confirmed cases of the disease, only those with underlying medical conditions have become seriously ill. Most have not needed medical care, which means that others probably have not been sick enough even to seek testing.
That does not mean that anyone can predict with a significant degree of certainty what might happen next. Like the Spanish influenza of the World War I years, it may roar back in the fall and cause a significant number of life-threatening cases at a time when the health-care system is already busy dealing with the seasonal influenza viruses that come around every year. Modern medicine has weapons that were not available 90 years ago, and those medications and treatments can make nearly any pandemic much more survivable than it once would have been. The health-care community also has the ability to disseminate accurate information almost instantly through mass media and the Internet.
Unfortunately, one aspect of life that has not changed a bit is the tendency of unscrupulous people to latch onto a hot-button topic and figure out a way to profit from frightened people. This time around, they are using modern communications technology to promote their fraudulent medical products and services. Hundreds of Web sites with various arrangements of the words "swine" and "flu" in the address were registered in the first few days after the disease was identified, many with links to fake online "pharmacies," and robo-callers began making automated telephone calls just as quickly.
Across the country, consumer-protection agencies are warning consumers about such dubious products as a "swine flu survival guide." Do not buy into this scam; accurate information is widely available free of charge.
A wave of e-mails directs consumers to a swarm of new Web sites created specifically to market such items as hand sanitizers and various types of masks. So far, an adequate supply is available locally, and there is no reason to send a credit-card number to a firm that did not exist a month ago and may not exist now.
Much more alarming are e-mails offering to sell a "swine flu vaccine." So far, none exists. When and if one is manufactured, the distribution system is certain to involve the federal government and local health-care professionals, not fly-by-night Internet hucksters. In good times, most people know better than to inject into their own bodies a mystery substance they have acquired on the black market. During health scares (and, apparently, all the time in professional sports), common sense sometimes falls by the wayside.
This need not be one of those times. Once again, right now swine flu does not appear to present much danger to healthy individuals. Good information is available, and the information available from a wide range of sources has been extremely consistent.
Basic precautions remain the best defense: Sick people should stay home and not expose others. Each household should have enough food stored so that sick people need not venture out. Everyone should wash their hands frequently. Those techniques apply to many illnesses, including the seasonal influenza and intestinal disorders. They are good ideas all the time, not just when a new "bug" crops up. They are also not rocket science; anyone can manage them, without sending money to profiteers.