Saturday, May 02, 2009

Flu PANdemIC!

The New York Times is reporting this morning that Mexican authorities say the number of individuals in that country who have actually been diagnosed with the H1N1 flu virus is substantially lower than first reported.

Of 908 suspected cases, less than 400 have been confirmed. Sixteen of those have died.

While scientists do the painstaking work necessary to better understand the virus, the media are whipping everyone into a frenzy. As of Friday, there were only 141 confirmed cases in the US, with one death. Yet around the country, schools and workplaces were closing and community events being cancelled. People were donning surgical masks for prevention. Hospital emergency rooms were being taxed by way too many folks coming in to report general flu symptoms. In its voracious need to fill the 24/7 news cycle and compete for viewers and ratings, the media have lost all perspective on this one.

It didn’t help that the World Health Organization, within only days of the virus being identified and before the numbers of confirmed cases were in from Mexico, ratcheted up its world pandemic warning. The media will certainly cite WHO’s scary pronouncements in its defense.

Meanwhile, Dr. Javier Torres, a leading infectious disease expert in Mexico, told the Times: “The number of those exposed and infected has gone up, and the number of fatal cases has gone down. We can be comfortable with those facts.”

And an official with the Centers for Disease Control in the US, referring to a historic epidemic that killed millions, said: “We do not see the markers for virulence that were seen in the 1918 virus.”

It might also help if someone clarified that thousands of people die every year in the US from common, identifiable flu viruses. This may not be comforting, but it’s a good reality check. We are all vulnerable all the time. Some of us will get sick; some of us will die. Common-sense prevention measures (which the media is purveying well) are always advisable.

The risk for the spread of new and deadly viruses is a real one. Our health authorities must be vigilant and our mass media accurate and sober sources of public information. The current flu hysteria does not give me much confidence that a real threat will be managed effectively. Added to that concern is the danger that false alarms will desensitize people and make them skeptical and lethargic when the real need for action does arise.