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Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?

So far, there's no indication that the "swine flu" is particularly dangerous, but the prospect of global catastrophe is attractive and exciting.

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The news media, however, have seriously overreacted, as have a lot of commentators and public figures who probably ought to know better.

There are screaming headlines about this at the top of every front page. The local and national television news programs are filling half of their broadcasts with pointless updates.

I surfed past one local Boston station last night that was doing a roundup of infections in New England: "Three infections have been confirmed in Maine, two in Kennebunk and one in Lewiston. All the victims are recovering." Three people in Maine had the flu and they're all getting better now? This is news? How about "J.B. McPheeters, of Bar Harbor, recently purchased three pairs of underwear?" That would seem to be of approximately equal general interest.

The result is some very real damage. The Egyptian authorities, for example, have ordered the slaughter of all the nation's pigs. This may be an opportunistic move to cultivate favor with religious fanatics, but it's utterly insane as an infection-control measure. You catch the virus from people, not pigs. Joe Biden is telling us all not to ride on the subway or fly. Schools are closing all over the country. John McCain wants to close the border with Mexico. One Harvard dental student was diagnosed, and they have shut down the entire Harvard medical campus. That'll do a lot of good -- especially since they've kept Brigham and Women's, Beth Israel and Children's hospitals open, and all of the doctors and residents and medical students are still going there, as far as I know. This means real economic damage at a time when we can ill afford it, and it is utterly pointless.

Why is this happening? Well, it's a novel event, for one thing, although the novelty is largely imaginary. People have a deeply rooted dread of epidemics because of what they have learned about history, and sure, it could happen, and it could be really bad -- although at the very worst it will be completely over in less than a year, and it will kill fewer people than tobacco during that time.

The uncertainty, the total lack of control that we each feel, the salability of a news story that could affect any one of us, all these figure into it. It did not help that the U.S. government chose to kick off the frenzy by having the secretary of homeland security (of all people) announce a "public health emergency" while flanked by several other very senior officials. That automatically makes it a big deal.

It also doesn't help that a couple of leading public health bloggers -- I'm not going to name names -- have been obsessed with the possibility of pandemic killer flu for some years now. They've been all up to the scuppers with H5N1 bird flu, which has so far disappointed, but this came along to save their act.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't have a crystal ball, I'm not prophesying that nothing worse will happen. Conceivably it might. But all of this hoopla now isn't going to help. The time to start yelling is when the sky starts falling, and so far it isn't.

Alas, I suspect that more than anything else, there's actually something attractive and exciting about the prospect of global catastrophe.

Remember, a significant number of people actually wanted civilization to collapse on Jan. 1, 2000. There was real disappointment when nothing happened. Life is dull, the world isn't what we want it to be, this is something happening.

 
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