As swine flu was spreading around the globe this spring, a senior disease specialist from the World Health Organization (WHO) held an urgent conference call with top British health officials. In the conversation this May, later described as "aggressive" by sources familiar with the discussion, the WHO official accused the British of concealing the extent of their country's swine-flu outbreak. Among those with swine-flu symptoms, Britain was only counting people who had traveled to places that, like Mexico, had already confirmed an outbreak of the virus, known to scientists as H1N1. Their method left much to be desired in a country where the virus was already spreading fast. Countless Britons fell sick and were intentionally left uncounted.
Governments, of course, have a long history of concealing outbreaks, and this year's flu pandemic, while the first of this particular century, was certainly not the first to be brushed under the rug. The consequences of cloaking swine flu weren't disastrous on this occasion, but the result will not always be so benign. In fact, at this very moment, another virus -- with the potential to be far more devastating -- is continuing to seed infections, frustrating efforts to root it out. That virus, H5N1, or avian flu, is a far more lethal strain. And you guessed it: front-line countries' records in candidly reporting the disease's spread don't bode well.
If there's one thing past pandemics have taught, it's that curing the world of flu is impossible unless countries are upfront about their outbreaks. Armed with that vital information, health officials can take steps to slow the spreading infection and, if containment fails, ramp up emergency medical care and other vital services. Without timely disclosures, it's much harder for virus hunters to discover how an emerging disease attacks its victims and transmits to others; it's also much tougher to get virus samples for study in the lab.