Friday, May 8, 2009

Justifying Fearmongering

This has been some pandemic. First there were the headlines--splashed across the tops of newspapers across the USA. "Pandemic!" they screamed. "Hide your children!" "Paint your walls with Pine-Sol." "Pre-emptively kill yourself so you don't have to live through Armaggedon."

Then, there was a general shuffling of feet and clearing of throats as the reality sank in that this was not exactly a threat to life as we know it. Turns out that most of the "confirmed" cases of pig flu were now reconfirmed as being unconfirmed. Or, put another way, Mexico had it all wrong. There was a paltry 45 deaths from the so-called swine flu, not the 150 that was originally reported. Other than that, most cases have been mild, and the spread of the virus has significantly slowed just a few weeks into the "epidemic." Only one non-Mexican has died of the flu, and this was someone who for some reason we didn't get a whole lot of info. about, except that the CDC seemed to be saying that her case wasn't cause for alarm.

The next phase was the finger pointing. With the press already being hammered for its failure to report on the economy in any meaningful way, now it was going to have to explain itself for once again buying into--and heavily inflating--the hype. Let's face it, fear sells papers like nothing else. I was in the news business. I know how this works. You're going to keep reading, watching, etc-ing if a story might turn you personally into a statistic. Now the press was caught red-handed doing just this.

Here's where it got really weird. There is now a spate of articles (here's one example from Reuters) coming out which are taking the following position: "Yes, we did overplay the threat. But the effects of all this fear-mongering were positive. People now know to be afraid of viruses, and are taking far more precautions. So, it actually was a good thing we totally screwed this one up."

This is the point at which science, economics, and, really, any study of human behavior goes completely out the window. First of all, as I pointed out in an earlier post, stress takes a toll on human health. Fear is perhaps the hardest on our systems of all the stressors. This is good for our health? I don't think so.

Second, what exactly were the precautions that people took? More frequent handwashing (no doubt with anti-bacterial soap), greater usage of anti-bacterial sprays and hand sanitizers, and staying home from work/school. Well, call me crazy, but the last I checked, there was a rising fear that all of these anti-bacterials could lead to the creation of "superbugs"--in other words, viruses that no one had the natural defenses to fight anymore. Is this sensible caution, or germ-phobic overreaction that could actually cause a real pandemic in the future? You decide.

Finally, I would ask this: does crying wolf every time someone gets the flu keep the public well-informed? Or, is the more likely effect that we'll start discounting these potential health emergencies in the future--even when an actual threat appears?

I have been disappointed and frustrated with the state of health and science journalism for years, but to me this is a new low. Would be nice if someone would show just a tiny bit of remorse and promise to do better next time. Guess I'll keep dreaming.

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