Toronto Sun, April 25, 2010

Just when you thought it was safe to shake hands in public, the H1N1 flu is making a comeback.

Or not. Maybe. The jury is still out.

It was a year ago this month that the swine flu hit North America and touched off a global panic fueled by the World Health Organization and its declaration last June of a pandemic.

Remember the fear? The lineups for vaccinations? The scare stories? The death of one 13-year-old boy, a hockey player for the Mississauga North Stars, was the tipping point for many. We were all going to die, weren’t we?

But of course we didn’t, or at least not nearly as many of us as predicted. It was a nasty flu all right. I was sick for five days and like many others, suffered lingering effects for months afterwards. I kept on coughing and feeling tired for most of the winter.

But in retirement homes and nursing homes there are all kinds of elderly people still alive because the swine flu, which affected younger people, pushed out the normal flu that carries off the frail and the infirm every winter.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says since April 2009, 424 Canadians have died after contracting H1N1 compared to the 4,000-8,000 who die of the seasonal flu each year.

All in all, about 18,000 people died around the world, a tiny fraction of the earlier predictions and today it’s just a not-so-fond memory in most of the world.

The only traces of its presence: Those hand sanitizer bottles that have appeared everywhere and a lingering reluctance to shake hands with strangers. Oh yeah and your new-found ability to cough into your elbow instead of your hand.

A year later, the World Health Organization admitted earlier this month its reaction to H1N1 might have been a tad excessive and it worries people will ignore its warnings in future. Well, duh. Too bad they didn’t think of that last fall when they were predicting mayhem.

Instead, the “pandemic” was pretty well over before winter really began, many people refused to get the vaccination — 55% in Canada alone — and now millions of doses globally will have to be thrown out as their expiry dates arrive. The cost? Astronomical.

And what has been learned here? The jury is still out.

The WHO assembled a panel of 29 experts to examine how the H1N1 was handled and what could be done to improve it. They spent two weeks working on it this month and will make a preliminary report in May.

But even as the U.N agency was issuing its mea culpa, some experts, including the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, were busy winding us up for another round of flu scares, warning of the likelihood of a “third wave” of H1N1 this summer and pointing out increases in H1N1 cases in the southeastern United States.

And even WHO has given in to the temptation to spread the fear once again, warning it will be another year before we know if H1N1 is conquered and that we must remain vigilant because most nations are still woefully unprepared if another, deadlier pandemic were to break out, such as bird flu.

But is anyone listening? WHO is starting to get a reputation for hysterical pronouncements and fearsome outbursts.

Earlier this month, during the Icelandic volcano eruption, it made big headlines in Europe when it warned Europeans to stay indoors if the ash started coming down because of potential dangers of inhalation.

A week later, and in somewhat smaller type, it corrected itself and announced the ash plume posed no threat beyond the immediate area of the eruption.

Trouble is even children know you can’t go on crying wolf. Sooner or later, people stop listening to you — even when you’re right.