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Vic: Don't panic over swine flu, health experts urge

By Katie Bradford
27 May 2009 5:07 PM

MELBOURNE, May 27 AAP - Health experts say swine flu is no more harmful than the ordinary flu at this stage and that there is no need to panic.

Although the number of people with swine flu in Australia has risen rapidly to reach 64 on Wednesday, health authorities are urging people to remember that most cases have been mild.

Dr Jodie McVernon from the University of Melbourne's population health department has been working with the federal government on predicting the disease and says Australia has been very lucky so far.

"Panicking is never a particularly robust response," Dr McVernon told AAP.

"The rate of spread is still very moderate."

But she warned it was unlikely the disease would remain mild and the spread contained.

Most of the population have no immunity to swine flu, so while ordinary seasonal flu only affects 10 per cent of the population, it is likely to affect up to 40 per cent, she believes.

Young people in particular have less immunity.

And when the illness infects another person it doesn't make a "perfect copy" of itself, so every now and then it may mutate into a more severe disease.

"We can't predict whether that's going to happen, or not, or when it may happen.

"Because more people are likely to get infected with the virus, the likelihood of a more severe strain turning up is higher."

Professor Adrian Sleigh from the Australian National University's epidemiology department agreed people shouldn't over-react.

Seasonal flu caused about 250,000 deaths worldwide a year, he said.

So far, there have been 97 deaths from swine flu around the world.

"An extensive outbreak of new influenza would presumably lead to deaths at the same rate, which is about 0.1 per cent of people who contract the disease," Professor Sleigh told AAP.

He said he believed the influenza A (H1N1) virus could affect about 35 per cent of the population over a two-year period.

"However, some of them might be infected so mildly they won't even know; it would only be detected by a blood test," he said, adding it was hard to predict how swine flu would develop.

"We know that in 1918, the Spanish influenza had a mild first wave and then a very severe second wave," Prof Sleigh said.

"We're also aware of other influenza pandemics that seemed to get less severe as time went by, so we don't know which of those will happen.

"There is no need to panic at this stage."

Victoria's acting chief health officer Dr Rosemary Lester on Wednesday told reporters swine flu was likely to hang around until at least next winter.

Dr McVernon believed it might only last "months".

"One of the purposes of putting in measures that slow down the spread is you might have a longer running epidemic but it never gets that bad," she added.