Thursday, April 30, 2009

Every Cough and Sneeze

Every cough and sneeze from my fellow passengers on the bus reminds me of the scary possibilities of catching swine flu. These are strange days, with many folks gearing up for a full-blown panic. Should we be so frightened?

David Whelan, writing for Forbes, has posted a useful reminder about the comparative threat of swine flu. He notes that 30,000 to 50,000 Americans die from complications caused by seasonal flu each year. Each of these deaths is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but they are part of a normal cycle.

This new flu? It could be a profound danger, another 1918 catastrophe, but it could also be one of many threats such as the 2003 SARS epidemic that scared the hell out of us before fading into the background, an historical near-miss. Whelen also wisely notes the media's role in whipping these sorts of threats into a public frenzy:
Recalling SARS: "Cable news channels and other media sensationalized the outbreak as if it were a Hollywood movie—a real-life sequel to Dustin Hoffman's 1995 hit Outbreak. A medical historian at the University of Toronto, Edward Shorter, watched what was going on and called the phenomenon 'mass psychosis.'"
Read the entire article: History Says Avoid Virus Hysteria


Jon said...

Good post.
The thing that makes it all hazy is when you have some officials say "it is just a normal flu virus", which is true, but the 1918 influenza strain was not particularly special either (just an avian flu strain). What made that virus interesting was that it seemed to take a particularly heavy toll on healthy young people (19-35), whereas most normal flu deaths are in the very young, the old and the sick.
While there is a lot of hype around this latest Swine Flu, I think that connection with the 1918 bug is what seems so scary.

Luckily, the media will soon loose interest and move on to something else.

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