Death by Media? Flu Panic Can Kill

We’ve all had the flu before. By and large, you feel like crap for a few days and then it passes.

Occasionally, a particularly virulent strain emerges that can pose a real threat. And while it's possible that could end up being the case with this bug (H1N1), there’s little evidence to suggest that we’re facing anything of the sort thus far (all the cases outside of Mexico have been run-of-the-mill bouts of the flu — see Cervantes’ post below).

That hasn’t prevented media hucksters from dragging everyone into the tent and putting on a massive circus. From CNN to the New York Times, it’s wall-to-wall flu-steria! And it’s totally overblown — flu virus doesn’t do well in warm temperatures, and with a few dozen non-life threatening cases in this country, coming this close to the end of the season, this outbreak of flu should be a page 15 story (as Cervantes points out).

But here’s the thing with what are known in public health circles as “catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks” (CIDOs): the disease itself is only a small part of the bigger picture. It’s the ancillary effects a CIDO can have on an entire society — but especially the health care delivery system and other vital services — which have historically caused as much death and suffering as the underlying infectious disease organism that caused the outbreak.

With the media stirring up a frenzy of panic over the flu, hospital emergency rooms are going to be jam-packed with people suffering from head-colds, some providers may be overwhelmed and shut down if the number of cases increases significantly, and it’s entirely possible that someone will die as a result of the crunch. If that should happen, it’ll be murder by media hype, although nobody will be held culpable for approaching The Big Story with anything less than complete and utter hysteria.

Here’s an excellent and rational post by Cervantes, writing on Stayin’ Alive — a public health policy blog. I think it’s worth reprinting in full:

Flu Schmlu

Yes, it is prudent to assume that someday, somehow, an emerging infectious disease pandemic will cause major global problems. I've said it a million times. However, contrary to the famous motto of Faber College, it is not always the case that Knowledge is Good, if it leads people to do stupid stuff.

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