Getting a grip on what the A (H1N1) pandemic is all about is key to devising a proper approach to handle the disease.

Sometimes we get frightened to death and paralysed by stories of a pandemic from diseases overseas and ignore the real danger literally lurking and killing in our very own backyards.

The Influenza A (H1N1), known in some parts of the world as swine flu, has been classified as Phase 6, the highest, in the World Health Organisation classification of pandemics, sparking off a panic of sorts, especially among Asian countries which have had to deal with SARS and avian flu among others.

While one should not underestimate the need to be careful and proactive with the outbreak, there is a need to be very circumspect about what Influenza A (H1N1) – the WHO-given name for this strain of the flu – is.

First, what is a pandemic? According to the WHO, a disease epidemic occurs when there are more cases of that disease than normal. A pandemic is a worldwide epidemic of a disease.

An influenza pandemic may occur when a new influenza virus appears, against which the human population has no immunity.

And what does Phase 6 mean?  Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterised by community-level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5, the WHO says. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way.

Phase 5 is characterised by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent.

The WHO cautions that with the increase in global transport, as well as urbanisation and overcrowded conditions in some areas, epidemics due to a new influenza virus are likely to take hold around the world and become pandemics faster than before.

What this basically establishes is that the latest flu strain is very contagious and is spreading very rapidly throughout the world. That is only to be expected from any new strain of flu and the WHO is only doing its duty when it points this out. But the alert level does not relate to danger.

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: “A Phase 6 pandemic declaration is based on the sustained worldwide spread of Influenza A (H1N1), not the severity of illness caused by the virus.”

The rapidity with which the virus is spreading is very evident in Malaysia, too. On May 15, Malaysia reported its first case, a student back home from the US. A month later, it reported the first case of a Malaysian catching the flu from another infected Malaysian.

Two days ago, it reported 38 new cases, the biggest one-day jump in cases, bringing the total to 196. But there has been no death yet. From here on, one has to expect that the cases will jump and we will find records being broken daily. (There were 48 cases yesterday.)

But what one must remember is that this strain of the flu is not as deadly as some of the infections that we have had before, such as SARS or avian flu. Worldwide, some 77,201 cases have been reported with 332 deaths, a fatality rate of 0.43% or less than one in 200 people infected.

That’s less dangerous than most other strains of flu. Some say the common cold may be killing more people than A (H1N1)! The people who are most likely to succumb to the disease are those with pre-existing conditions where their systems have already been weakened.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are overreacting given that it is not a severe illness. That in no way implies that we drop our state of alertness and preparedness, but that our response should be commensurate with the severity of the disease.

Take dengue for instance. Up to June 13 this year, there had been 23,056 cases with 57 deaths. Certainly more can be done to curb this backyard killer, which is carried by mosquitoes.

Cool heads must prevail to find appropriate solutions to the Influenza A (H1N1) problem. We need to look at what can be reasonably done.

Some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, are already taking a different approach and dealing with the disease directly instead of trying to test for all suspected cases, which takes up a lot of resources.

There is no one-size solution that will fit all countries, but it is perhaps high time we try out some other outfits and let our lives return to normalcy. Undue fear about Influenza  A (H1N1) can be rather disruptive for business – and leisure.