This past April, the arrival of finals brought another unpleasant surprise. Swine flu (H1N1) emerged from the pig farms of Mexico and swept across six continents in a matter of days. As the number of reported cases ballooned from dozens to tens of thousands, China quarantined a hotel and Egypt slaughtered an entire swine population. International panic reached a fever pitch, and — particularly if our own 24-hour news networks were to be believed — Armageddon loomed just around the corner.

Subsequent months have witnessed a steady fall back to reality. The vast majority of cases have been characterized by only mild symptoms, and turnaround has been remarkably quick. Taken as a whole, only H1N1’s highly communicable nature and targeting of young adults distinguishes it from the strains of flu seasons past.

Yet as temperatures cool and sickness spreads, fear of H1N1 pandemic is mounting. On college campuses — where the susceptibility of our age group and proximity of our living conditions intensifies the risk — swine flu has become a serious threat. Accordingly, we should arm ourselves with the facts — and recognize the steps our own University has taken to keep us safe.

Penn’s current tally of suspected H1N1 cases stands at 25. Even recognizing the inaccuracy of a self-reporting system, this figure contrasts sharply with the numbers found on many other college campuses. Cornell University, with a student population roughly equal to our own, has acknowledged more than 600 cases. Other schools like Washington State University have seen their tallies swell into the thousands, affecting huge swaths of the student body.

Just because we’ve been lucky so far doesn’t mean we’ll always stay that way. Fortunately, Penn has kept the Hazmat suits primed and ready. The commencement of fall classes saw the release of a report entitled, “Preparing for Influenza at Penn,” as well as the formation of a Pandemic Incident Management Team (just the name makes me feel safer) to regularly update the course of University policy. According to Matt Waller, spokesman for the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life, so far that policy has hinged on preventative education.

In Waller’s words, however, “As circumstances dictate, it’s possible that public health officials will recommend we modify or suspend normal operations to help limit the spread of flu. This could include suspending classes or cancelling public gatherings, like athletic events and social programs.” The challenge of pandemic, like the flu itself, has no single panacea. Penn has adopted a number of contingencies to fit a variety of possible situations. Accordingly, students should be prepared for potential disruptions in University life — and not cause undue panic in the process.

Even as our own campus outlook remains largely positive, we should recognize the very real toll that H1N1 has taken on others across the nation. So far, three university students have succumbed to complications arising from the virus. The most recent casualty, Cornell junior Warren Schor, struck particularly close to home. These tragedies provide a harsh reminder of the strain’s far-ranging reach, and they reinforce the need for constant vigilance.

That said, recent national news assessing the threat of a renewed swine flu pandemic has been widely positive. One of the gravest concerns consistently voiced about H1N1 influenza — that it might mutate into a more virulent strain during traditional flu season — has been all but disproved by Maryland researchers. More encouraging still, preliminary tests of the H1N1 vaccine expected to be released in early October suggest it might be as much as 95 percent effective in preventing fresh swine-flu infection. H1N1 may be a pandemic, but it is far from an unstoppable one.

As flu season deepens and the squawking heads cry louder, maintaining a voice of reason will become crucial. No matter how much the specter of H1N1 grows, it will remain beatable. Similarly, regardless of the number of suspected cases on Penn’s campus, we should keep some faith in our University’s ability to make the right decisions. Together, we can deflate the panic — and put down the Purell.

Emerson Brooking is a College junior from Turnerville, Ga. His e-mail address is brooking@dailypennsylvanian.com

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