This year, every country in the world has had to confront H1N1 influenza, also known as "swine flu." The newly identified influenza virus caused great concern when it appeared unexpectedly in Mexico and the United States, before spreading quickly to all continents around the globe. But we are now breathing a collective sigh of relief after discovering that -- so far, at least -- the health impact of this virus has not been much greater than that of the "seasonal" influenza viruses we face every year.
At first glance, the international community displayed an admirable level of cooperation and collective action in response to swine flu's emergence. Mexico adhered to its responsibilities under the International Health Regulations (IHR), a set of rules on detection and reporting of disease outbreaks that have been agreed to by all 193 member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO). The United States, Canada and Mexico, utilizing regional pandemic plans that had been hashed out through international negotiations over the previous five years, demonstrated an unprecedented level of mutual cooperation and transparency during the early phases of the pandemic. These countries rapidly and openly shared clinical samples for critical laboratory tests of the virus, and pooled their resources, expertise, and experiences. As a result, the genetic code of the virus and its epidemiologic characteristics were detailed and published openly, allowing public health officials around the world to get an early start on cranking up their response plans and letting pharmaceutical companies begin the time-consuming process of making vaccines against the new strain.
Mexico, in particular, is to be commended for making difficult policy choices and implementing strong public health measures to control the domestic -- and, in turn, international -- spread of the disease during the early uncertain days of the pandemic, taking a large economic hit by essentially shuttering the country for a couple of weeks. When the United States government learned of Mexico's large outbreak, it chose not to close its southern border despite some domestic pressure to do so and despite early indications that the flu's severity in Mexico appeared to be high. Closing the U.S.-Mexico border would have sent further shock waves through the two countries' economies, without doing a thing to stem the spread of infection, which by that time was already being widely transmitted within U.S. borders. So in most countries, scientific evidence, reason, and sound public health practices prevailed over panic.