Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SuPeR ScArY AnD UnHeLpFuL HeAlTh NeWs: Swine Flu Edition

I'm sure by now you've heard via multiple sources about the Oh Dear God It's the Swine Flu SWINE FLU SWINE FLU! I found out about this new ScArY ThInG when I turned on the news a couple of days ago and heard the newscaster pretty much say that "a public health emergency has been declared," Obama had said that "the outbreak was reason for concern," and paradoxically that we should all relax because there is no "cause for alarm."

Yet. Bwahahahahahahahahaha!

In all seriousness, I am highly annoyed by scary and unhelpful news reports. Perhaps eager to report on anything other than the economy, torture, and bank bailouts (come on, the war in Iraq is so 2005), the media is now breathlessly bombarding us with a barrage of Critical Swine Flu Updates. Yesterday, a few days into the Swine Flu Story, Google News alone turned up almost 70,000 news stories on the emerging issue. Many of the articles can be summed as follows:

Swine flu is spreading all over the world and 149 people have died in Mexico! US border officials are screening travelers, even though such screening is "basically pointless in public health terms" since people can be contagious without being symptomatic! The only ways to lessen your chances of getting this deadly thing is to do things you should already be doing anyway, like washing your hands a lot. Good luck everyone.

I understand the importance of reporting on possible emerging contagious diseases, but doesn't it all make you feel so helpless? Like, there is pretty much nothing I can do to prevent this thing than to keep on doing what I already do anyway and it essentially all boils down to luck. (Although, I am counting down the minutes until someone finds a way to blame the swine flu on gays, atheists, and/or feminists.) Furthermore, hearing about this disease every time I turn on my computer, radio, iPod, and television makes our situation seem so very dire when, in reality, nobody knows much of anything. For instance, the "2009 swine flu outbreak" Wikipedia page (yes, it already has its own entry) includes tallies of confirmed and possible cases, as well as attributed and confirmed deaths. Within this entry, citizen journalists have been busily updating maps and charts showing the spread of the virus, even though the numbers of confirmed cases are much lower than the numbers of "possible cases."

So, on behalf of our collective sanity, I think we all need to take a deep breath and just calm. down. Little in life annoys me more than sensationalism in the media. I remember SARS, West Nile Virus, avian flu, anthrax attacks, and every other over-hyped ScAry NeWs EvEnT that did little more than whip the masses into paranoid anxious frenzies.

Anyway, to give you a calmer dose of perspective, via Stayin' Alive, a public health blog:

"Okay, so what's going on right now? Probably absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. We're at the tail end of the flu season right now, and it happens to be that at this time a new strain of flu has been detected. The Mexican authorities seem to think it can cause unusually severe disease, but that has not been observed elsewhere and it is not clear whether that is really true in Mexico City either. When a small number of young men in Mexico City suddenly die of pneumonia, my first thought is HIV, not pandemic flu. (And it is a small number. The Mexican authorities have attributed 100 deaths to this virus, of which only 18 have been confirmed as actual swine flu infections. 20 million people live in Mexico City.) Influenza normally cannot survive in warm temperatures, which is why flu season ends in the spring. Unless this virus has some as yet completely unknown properties for which there is no evidence whatsoever, this outbreak is almost certainly going to die out on its own in no more than a couple of weeks. Even if it does not, there is no particular reason to think it will ever be much more than an annoyance."

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