Underwear Linked to Death!

Have you been bitten by a mosquito this summer? Have you eaten a hamburger? Have you seen a dead bird in your neighborhood? Then chances are: YOU could be at RISK!

Have you been frightened today?

Between the recent headlines about West Nile Virus and Mad Cow Disease, it's hard to find health news that doesn't scare the diddles out of you or is meant to be oh so novel as to grab your interest. You may have become addicted to the grand sensations, but frankly I've had enough.

The weird headlines are particularly noticeable in midsummer when the silly season hits full force. And the annual period between July 4th and Labor Day is a time when real news seems to totally disappear and is replaced by whatever crazy headline or human interest story can be found to fill the gap.

Not that there is a whole lot of serious medical reporting on any given day, but a simple check of the facts might show some degree of credibility and scope lacking in some of the reporting.

Here's one example. The headline from New Scientist Magazine, "Hormones in Semen Shown to Make Women Feel Good," caught the attention of one of my colleagues because it uses data based on a diagnostic tool called the "Beck Depression Inventory," in order to essentially make a case for having unprotected sex to ease symptoms of depression in women.

We learned the following: "The researchers assessed the moods of 300 female students using a standard questionnaire. A score of more than 17 was considered moderately depressed. Women whose partners never used condoms scored about eight on the test while those who never had sex without condoms scored 11.3. Women who weren't having sex at all scored about 13.5."

As my colleague pointed out: "The data in this study is based on women who are not depressed in the first place. Saying that they are less depressed after having unprotected sex doesn't make sense."

Likewise, it makes sense to look at other data before coming to the conclusion that you'll die of West Nile Virus this summer. Notably absent from any of the stories about the West Nile rampage across the country is any attention to the environmental factors that might be causing some of the symptoms. There are pollutants that are as likely to cause medical problems as any infected mosquito.

Here is what we learned from the Associated Press: "Louisiana, which reported its sixth and seventh West Nile virus deaths on Friday, had already (declared a state of emergency). The latest victims were identified as a 76-year-old woman who died Aug. 2 and a 94-year-old woman who died on Sunday. Both lived north of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain.

"It looks like a lot of the people who died were elderly people and people with other health problems," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana's state epidemiologist."

Well, maybe we should take a closer look at some of the pollution that is very much present in Louisianna and ask whether it can make elderly people ill. Maybe the West Nile Virus is not the menace that we've been led to fear. Maybe, West Nile is a marker or a sign that the body is in distress. Yeah, but in the silly season, who wants to tackle environmental issues? It is much easier to run with a scary headline.

From Reuters comes this story worthy of comment at the highest level: "White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that a bird found dead on the White House grounds had tested positive for the disease, which can be spread to humans by infected mosquitoes. But he said the discovery did not pose a health threat."

Advice I've been given since childhood tells me to stay away from dead animals. Finding dead birds on my front lawn does give me a chill, just like Mr. Bush must have had when the gardener found a dead crow at the White House. I don't have the birds from my lawn autopsied to determine cause of death, but I'm sure they are just as dead as the one Mr. Bush found. But maybe if they were properly autopsied, we might learn that environmental pollutants did them in.

Are birds sentinels? Do they warn us that our environment is in a deep mess? Well, sorry, I didn't mean to get too intellectual, given that this is summer.

On the other hand, it pays to be skeptical when you listen to news reports about the latest threat to your life and your health. When I was a reporter, my editor was always happy if he could file a sensational headline.

Headlines sell the news -- a fact we sometimes forget. Fear, controversy and turmoil make the news. Reporters don't report the news, so much as look for a good headline

Which brings me to my headline: Do you feel safe in your underwear?

Mark Elliot is a columnist at Red Flags Weekly.

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