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Debbie O'Leary
IU Maurer School of Law

James Boyd
IU Maurer School of Law

Flu reaction: Panic or prudence?

Indiana University law professor assesses reactions to the public health responses to Influenza A (H1N1)

May 5, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Just one week after the emergence and spread of Influenza A (H1N1) caused national and international declarations of public health emergencies, the media, pundits and members of the general public are beginning to question whether public health authorities have over-reacted to the outbreak and have inadvertently triggered unnecessary and harmful individual and governmental behavior.

David P. Fidler, the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said this developing debate about the responses to Influenza A (H1N1) is important but people should be wary of simplistic hype about the "panic" that public health responses to the outbreak have ostensibly caused.

"We have seen irrational responses to public health warnings about Influenza A (H1N1), whether we have the 'worried well' burdening emergency rooms or countries banning the importation of pork products from countries affected by the new virus. Some over-reaction is anticipated -- and sometimes unavoidable -- when societies deal with serious infectious disease threats, because responses to such threats often occur in a context of great uncertainty, as has been the case with this new influenza virus," Fidler said. "Unlike a hurricane or tornado, where the damage is geographically limited, readily observable, and regularly experienced, certain infectious diseases, particularly influenza, can appear unexpectedly and spread rapidly and silently across a community, a nation and the planet before scientists and policy makers fully understand the threat. Microbial threats often induce individual and collective fear, which makes promoting responses based on the best available science and public health principles difficult. However, compared to the climate experienced after the anthrax attacks in 2001 and the SARS outbreak in 2003, I am sensing much less panic and more prudence, which reflects, in part, the preparations made by governments at all levels for a potential pandemic of influenza. I will be relieved if, at the end of this outbreak, we are left debating whether public health responses were appropriate rather than counting and mourning thousands killed by an influenza virus we did not fear enough."

Fidler is one of the world's leading experts on global health and international law and has written extensively in this area and consulted widely with governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations on global health challenges. His most recent books include Biosecurity in the Global Age: Biological Weapons, Public Health, and the Rule of Law (Stanford University Press, 2008, with Lawrence O. Gostin). His analysis of the Influenza A (H1N1) outbreak and international law in the Insights series of the American Society of International Law can be found at

He can be reached at 812-855-6403 or

For additional tips and analysis from Indiana University faculty members about Influenza A (H1N1) -- also called swine flu -- see