Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Creation Of Panic

"It really is the whole of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic."  --Margaret Chan, MD, Director-General of the WHO

What a terrible statement.

While I will say – again – that we have a serious situation on our hands, comments like this one that Dr. Chan made are what will stir the “panic pot”. And in my view it was an inappropriate thing for her to say.

I’ve been following this H1N1 situation pretty closely, as I think many of you who read this blog have been doing. I personally decided to not call it “swine flu” because it hasn’t truly been found to originate purely with swine. The virus in its current form has been found to be a re-assortment of swine, avian, and human Influenza all combined. The overwhelming issue with this strain is that it has never been seen before. Because of this, no immunity to it exists. Neither does a vaccine, although there has been a serious effort to jump-start production of one. The only issue with this is that a vaccine isn’t forecast to be available until this coming Fall.

It is indeed spreading; based on all of the information that is available, there is no disputing that. But I will say that if you look at all of the reported cases – as of yesterday there were 148 laboratory confirmed cases reported worldwide – I would maintain my opinion that as long as proper precautions are taken the incidence can be kept to a reasonable minimum. However, there have been deaths outside of Mexico, and there will likely be more; it was reported that a 23-month old male died at the Texas Children’s Medical Center. It was also reported that this child came over the border with his family and died 5 days later. Apparently this child was already infected at the time he and his family came from Mexico.

The WHO has set the pandemic alert level, as of yesterday’s reporting, to 5. The highest level is 6. At this level, person-to-person contact is the main transmission vehicle of the virus within the community, and transmission is widespread. Being at level 5, spread of the virus is reported to be “nearly pandemic”, and the folks at both the WHO and the CDC are saying the situation is nearly at that point.

If you go to the public health sites doing the following and reporting of this situation, said sites are doing their best to keep the public informed. I never expected to say this, but I especially like what the CDC is doing; they are doing an excellent job keeping us all up to date on what is going on. However, the media’s reporting of this situation feels to me – and this is simply my perception – like we’re in the midst of a new type of “Andromeda Strain”, in terms of the seriousness of the spread.  Many of the news outlets doing the reporting – not all, perhaps, but many - have taken this and ramped up the public’s level of fear in the way they have covered this. They’ve sensationalized this situation. And in my view, this is wrong. I’m not seeing a lot of information, but I am seeing what looks to me like an excess of the stories of people who have been severely affected by this.

Not that this story necessarily reflects my view, but look at the title. See what I mean?

Why can’t the media leave those people alone? Those that they are reporting on have enough problems and they don’t need to have the stuff they’re dealing with broadcast to the world.

It really bugs me to see this.


Deege said...

As usual, you are spot on! News media grabs on to stories like this and acts like a dog with a bone. Not that they shouldn't make the public aware, but the fear engendered in this type of reporting can be counter-productive.

From CDC Influenza - Seasonal FluEvery year in the United States, on average:

•5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;
•more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications; and
•about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.
These facts aren't being reported.

I'm not a scientist, but it seems that this "swine flu" although spreading, isn't spreading as quickly as one might think it would. Perhaps that is because along with reporting every new case that's diagnosed, they are also telling people how to avoid catching the flu.

Then again, what news agency really wants to report "good" news all the time? It's the bad news that sells.

Walt Trachim said...

I know what you're saying about bad news being what sells. You're right.

I've seen the numbers you put up in your comment. Regardless of how much I know, it always amazes me that information like this seems to be conveniently overlooked.

You're right about the prevention thing; at least the media is being responsible about that. And the other good news is that this isn't 1976.

Deege said...

Did you happen to catch the press conference on WMUR at about 11:30 or so this morning? One "probable" case in NH and they do a press conference?

As of 10:30 AM today, the CDC reported 109 cases in the US. Certainly something to watch, but I'm thinking it just might be a bit too much.

Walt Trachim said...

I didn't see the press conference but I did watch the noon news. Practically the whole half-hour spent on this one story.


Elizabeth said...

I don't hear any of our local UK media running round screaming "We're all gonna die!" when it is "normal" flu season.........but they have gone totally stir-crazy here at the moment.

The mortality rate for "normal" flu is far, far higher than this H1strain so far, but that isn't media-worthy.......

Anonymous said...

I agree that perhaps the media has gone a bit overboard with this flu hype. But if they did not report it, and people died due to a lack of reporting they would be taken to task for that. So as I see it, they can't win! Damned if they do and damned if they don't. Where is the individual personal responsibility to not swallow up everything you hear or see today in the media? Or buy into the hysteria created by the news media? Gone! No one seems to have any common sense today. One needs to be able to look past the sensationalism or the yellow journalism on many issues and make their own decision on matters. People today are unable to do this and it’s scary.

Walt Trachim said...

I can't argue with you on the reporting/non-reporting issue because you are right about that. I especially agree with you about society's collective loss of common sense; that isn't good, and it doesn't bode well for our future. However, my whole point concerns what you're saying about sensationalism; the issue of journalistic responsibility is what I was referring to when I made the comment about sensationalism.

I will admit - readily, in fact - that I have a bad attitude towards the news media. I don't apologize for it. I've seen the damage that can be done by the news machine up close. And I definitely think as far as this situation is concerned they are going too far.