Meaningful classification of information is one of the prime tasks in technical communication.
By that standard, the WHO (World Health Organization) classification of the Swine Flu into “phases” fails the test since it does not give us an indication of the severity of the “pandemic” or suggest what should we do about it.
But first on the word “pandemic” itself since there’s some degree of ambiguity to the term as well.
What’s the difference between a “pandemic” and an “epidemic”?
Shortly: if an epidemic “spreads around” to many countries and becomes a global threat, it becomes a “pandemic.” The word “pandemonium” (a state of extreme confusion and disorder) derives from the same root.
Thus, according to Wikipedia, an epidemic may be restricted to one locale (an outbreak), become a general threat (an “epidemic”), or spread around the world (pandemic).
The worst pandemics in world history include Typhoid Plague of Athens, 430 BC, Antonine Plague, 165–180, Plague of Justinian, from 541 to 750, Black Death, 1300s, The Great Plague of London of 1665–66, and the Post-WW1 Flu Pandemic of 1918.
Currently WHO has issued a “pandemic alert” of Phase 5.
But now we’re beginning to understand that the Swine Flu virus may actually be “milder” than “previously thought.”
So what does it mean if a virus triggers a “Phase 5” (out of a total of 6) level of alert but prove to be “mild” in nature indeed?
Let’s look at the official definition of these phases.
Scale of Pandemic Influenza Phases (according to WHO)
Phase 1 no viruses circulating among animals have been reported to cause infections in humans.
In Phase 2 an animal influenza virus circulating among domesticated or wild animals is known to have caused infection in humans, and is therefore considered a potential pandemic threat.
In Phase 3, an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus has caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks.
Phase 4 is characterized by verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.”
Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region.
Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5.
Problems with this classification are:
1) It does not tell us exactly what to do. Should I take a leave of absence from work if the flu hits Phase 5? Should I have all my pets vaccinated if it hits Phase 4? Etc. WHO and NIH explain this away by noting that all such implementation decisions are left to the “local authorities.” But that begs the questions again: how can the local authorities decide what to do once they are told that the pandemic is at Phase 3, 4 or 5? That kind of vital information should be built into the scale itself if it’s to be useful.
2) The scale is not implemented consistently. At this writing 1,124 cases had been officially confirmed in 21 countries but we are still at Phase 5 level of alert. Shouldn’t we be in Phase 6 already?
3) The levels do not signify the SEVERITY of the illness itself. It merely denotes geographic spread. The flu can spread to 59 countries but it can be very mild. Or it can be observed in only one country but kill a million people. Thus the WHO levels do not signal the kind of damage the virus can cause.
Overall, this classification fails to tell us how serious or life-threatening the pandemic in question is. Thus it fails in its chief objective.