With the number of news stories about swine flu pushing 50,000 in the past week, some journalists are beginning to wonder whether the press is suffering from swine fever. As the Los Angeles Times James Rainey puts it:
Desperate to fill to the top of the hour and armed with little clarity – no one can say for certain how prolonged or deadly this flu episode will be – some newsies can’t stop spinning. And conjuring a frightening reality that isn’t quite real.
Fox News warned the virus was spreading from coast to coast; CNN asked whether people should stop shaking hands and hugging; meanwhile the LAT reported that the consensus among experts was that H1N1 wasn’t “shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics.”
The absence of pre-existing immunity to a new variation of the flu virus is responsible for driving the expert community to respond to the potential of a threat, as MedPage Today reports – and the worldwide public health response has been reassuringly swift, showing how the lessons from dealing with the threat of the SARS pandemic in 2003 have been put to good effect. It took months to identify SARS as a new disease; it took researchers less than a week to determine that there was a new strain of flu. As Richard E. Besser, M.D., CDC’s acting director tells MedPage Today,
The fact that we have been exercising several times a year for a pandemic has meant that when it occurred, we didn’t have to sit down and say ‘Let’s talk about the flu. Here’s the things you need to look out for with flu.’
But the swiftness of the response, something that should reassure the public, has actually become a source of panic: An effective precautionary public health response requires acting on limited information, but that limited information simultaneously becomes the source of speculation in the press, spurred to report the story with almost as much alacrity as the health authorities. Sensible precaution in public health becomes sensational panic in the press.
Unfortunately, as yet, there is no way of knowing the virulence or attack rate of the virus. But putting the numbers in context, as Michael Fumento notes on Forbes, provides a counterbalance to the idea that we are facing a new threat: we’re always dealing with the threat of flu, and it always exacts a toll:
A calm perspective of the current outbreak of the virus now known as influenza A (H1N1) would compare it to seasonal flu. According to the CDC, the seasonal flu infects between 15 to 60 million Americans each year (5% to 20%), hospitalizes about 200,000 and kills about 36,000. That comes out to over 800 hospitalizations and over 250 deaths each day during flu season.
Worldwide deaths are 250,000 to 500,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), or about 700 to 1,400 per day spread out over the year.
For the very latest WHO estimates, click here