H1N1 Just Isn't That Scary: Why There's No Reason to Go Overboard with Swine Flu Hysteria
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Panic itself is, to a large degree, what makes an outbreak "catastrophic." It causes individuals and institutions to act irrationally -- to cease activities that are necessary for society to function smoothly. It sends people running to emergency rooms when they get a sniffle, overwhelming health care systems at the worst possible time.
Tufts' Laws has studied people’s perception of risk -- what makes people terrified of something that is highly unlikely to hurt them (the occasional frenzy of shark-attack stories in the media, for example), while not worrying at all about far more dangerous activities like smoking cigarettes.
"One of the most powerful factors," he writes, "is social amplification of risk. Worries can be contagious and rapidly infect people within a social group. In modern society, the mass media are by far the most powerful carriers of contagion."
And the media are getting plenty of grist for their sensationalist mills.
In April, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano called a press conference and declared a public-health emergency. In August, officials for the Centers for Disease Control warned that H1N1 could infect half of the U.S. population and kill 90,000 Americans by year’s end. CDC officials estimated that 1 in 10 New Yorkers had contracted the virus this spring.
Meanwhile, the Observer, a British tabloid, breathlessly citing a leaked U.N. report, offered the specter of "millions" of rotting corpses and "anarchy" spreading across the developing world.
Unsurprisingly, people’s fears of the flu are growing with every sensational headline.
In May, 1 in 5 respondents told Gallup that they expected a family member to contract the swine flu; by August that number had almost doubled. Over those same months, belief that the government was able to handle the situation dropped by 14 points -- from 74 percent to 60 percent.
Exaggerated fear has potential consequences beyond overwhelming ERs with nervous patients who should be resting at home consuming soup.
In mid-July, a Health and Human Services advisory committee "strongly recommended that [HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius give the green light to vaccine production by Aug. 15 -- before safety and dosing tests are finished." The U.S. government ordered 195 million doses of a new H1N1 vaccine, which is being fast-tracked through the normal drug development and approval process. Whether that proves to be a problem or turns out to have been justified remains to be seen.
The take-away from all this is that the best cure for swine flu hysteria may be a healthy dose of salt.
When the news trumpets the latest fatality, remember that through the end of April, while not a single American had died as a result of the swine flu, the CDC estimated that 13,000 had already succumbed to complications arising from the plain old vanilla "seasonal flu."
Public-health officials, epidemiologists and clinicians have to worry about H1N1. As things stand, you really don’t.