Let’s put the first U.S. death from swine flu into perspective

It was inevitable that the first death from porcine influenza would receive a banner headline in massive 36 point, all caps type on Matt Drudge: “FIRST DEAD: MEXICAN WHO CAME TO USA FOR TREATMENT.”

The news concerns a 23-month old Mexican boy who fell ill earlier this month on a visit to Texas and, sadly, died this week in a hospital in Houston. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this morning that the boy had H1N1, the so-called “swine flu.”

The scale of the headline on Drudge reflects the way an alarming frame for news creates and then feeds on public panic. Typically, news organizations treat public anxiety as an objective phenomenon that they have had no influence on, but by noon, Google News was logging over 42,000 news stories mentioning the death.

As Fox News noted, the news comes “amid increasing global anxiety over a health menace that authorities around the world are struggling to contain.” Reuters (via the Guardian) also noted that “swine flu could threaten millions” with other diseases.

While the possibility that H1N1 could mutate into a virulent global pandemic cannot be ruled out as merely hypothetical, it is far from becoming reality.  It should be borne in mind that children die every year in the U.S. from less novel forms of the flu – in the most recent breakdown of the data 119 children between the ages of one and four died of influenza/pneumonia in the U.S. in 2004.

Meanwhile, an Australian newspaper reports that the number of swine flu deaths has been overestimated, and that an official from the World Health Organization claims that only seven deaths have been confirmed so far as H1N1.

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