Maggie Fox

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Where scientists go to learn about swine flu

September 17, 2009

Usually, at a forum on swine flu, all the experts stand up, present a bunch of general background material, a few new findings, and leave. The learning curve on H1N1 is so steep that by the time you fill in the background, you are out of time, and there’s no point in hearing the next presenter speak to a general audience

But this week’s Institute of Medicine  meeting was different. Epidemiologists – the people who specialize in how disease spreads – were talking to molecular geneticists. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization filled in the bench scientists on how negotiating to get vaccines and drugs for poor countries was taking up everyone’s valuable time. Veterans of the 1976 swine flu vaccine mess told their stories. Every scientist sat there raptly listening to the other’s presentations. Much of the material had not yet gone through the time consuming peer-review process needed for publication in a medical journal, so it was a little raw, but that much more useful and timely to an educated audience.

They traded notes on how technology could make it a lot harder to fight the rumor mill about vaccines and drug side-effects; presented good news about the severity of the pandemic and traded their worries about how the public health system — or rather the lack of one in the United States and many other countries — will cope.

CDC pathologist Dr. Sherif Zaki looked at the bodies of patients who died of swine flu and found a surprise — the virus does not act like regular flu, at least not in seriously ill patients. And more study confirmed that the virus did indeed originally come from pigs.

The consensus is that while many may accuse the public health community and the media of hyping the pandemic, the world is not out of the woods yet, and this virus will continue to surprise the experts for a long time.

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