We’re All Gonna Die!!

deep1…but probably not from swine flu.

[Photo by Jane Coleman. Used with permission only retroactively, because I’m a dumbass.]

And so it begins, this year’s health scare, and already it’s looking to beat out SARS for the quickest spread of misinformation. It’s on every news site and front page: SWINE FLU! SWINE FLU DISCOVERED IN THE U.S.! SWINE FLU DISCOVERD IN OHIO!

Hmm, I wonder why. Perhaps it’s because, like during any other fad, the people who create “report” the news are making decisions based on what will generate the most readership, thereby converting into ad sales, which converts into money in the pockets of the people who make descisions about what news to report.

No, I see no problem with that process, why do you ask?

By way of perspective, some numbers: In Mexico, where this outbreak is thought to have originated, there have been about 1600 reported cases thought to be swine flu as of this writing. Of those, about 100 people have died. I do not make light of those deaths. These are people with families and loved ones, and these are genuine tragedies, especially when you start wondering if those deaths could have been prevented with adequate medical care. But that’s a topic for another time.

No, I do not make light of those deaths, and 1 in 16 truly is a frighteningly high mortality rate for a flu. But remember two things: Mexico has more than one hundred million people. So while the chances of dying from swine flu once you’ve caught it seem to be rather high, the chances of the average person dying from it are at this point literally one in a million.

And two, this is in Mexico, where much of the country is rural and/or poor — which means less likely to visit a doctor for what feels like (and for most people, apparently is) little more than a common flu. So the number of people who’ve actually caught it — and fought it, and didn’t even think to contact a pricey or hard-to-reach doctor about it —  is likely to be much, much higher than 1600.

“Butbutbut,” you say, “the WHO called swine flu a ‘a public health emergency of international concern’!” Oooh, sounds scary. Until you look at the WHO website:

A public health emergency of international concern refers to an extraordinary public health event which is determined, under specific procedures:

• to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and

• to potentially require a coordinated international response.

Hmm, not so scary.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. It’s important to take reasonable precautions when dealing with a situation like this; y’know, wash your hands and don’t go out if you’re sick, that sorta thing. But it’s also important to keep perspective, and to remember that in our modern, cable-news-driven society, things like this almost always seem much worse than they are.

We’ll be seeing swine flu news everywhere for weeks to come, no doubt. But remember that for awhile we saw Paris Hilton news everywhere, too. The media follows the money, and the money follows the fad, and the fad follows psychology — not reality, at least not necessarily.

So let’s all calm the hell down, OK?

[Thanks to xkcd for inspiring this rant.]

Update: I never thought I’d say this, but thank you, CNN, for providing a bit of perspective. (And thanks to Mike for the link.)

6 Replies to “We’re All Gonna Die!!”

  1. A well done piece Joe. I do have a couple thoughts that I’d like to run by you.

    First, your point about numbers is well taken, but I think they may be a bit off. I believe the 1600 cases have come from Mexico City, which has a population of 18 million. Still, if my calculator is working that gives us a ratio of 8.8888888888888888e-5 – which I think is small. A ha – but larger than your number!

    Secondly, while again I would agree that much of Mexico is rural and/or poor, given the people of Mexico’s response, I must assume this is a real concern for them. When in Rome you know? If those who are accustomed to poor healthcare consider this a big deal..well, maybe this is different than normal Mexican flu.

    Finally, we’ve heard for some time that as a people, we are overdue for a flu pandemic. Couple that with the information age where we can so quickly track this thing to all these points on the globe and you’ve got a recipe for concern…but I would say that this concern may be rational.

    But then again, I haven’t had a chance to watch CNN today. Maybe they’ve got John King going crazy with genomes on his crazy Minority Report Admiral Ackbar XT-490 thing. That would be sweet.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I’m off to go buy my Tiger Wood’s signature Nike swooshed virus blocking mask, but I’m not about to go streaking on a Mexican soccer pitch either.

    Okay, joe. Let me have it…

  2. Good points. I agree that this is of course a real concern for rural Mexicans, but I think that supports my point: If there were more deaths (which would seem at least unexplained to them) we would have heard about them. These folks aren’t just going to ignore it. Therefore, even if the flu itself is more widespread than we think, the mortality rate isn’t as high as initial reports appear.

    And I also agree that we are overdue for a flu pandemic — but if you look at the way some folks (and media outlets) are responding, it makes it sound as though swine flu has 100-percent mortality! If you look back at what happened in the last significantly fatal pandemic (Spanish flu around 1918 if memory serves), a large part of the mortality was due to secondary infections, which we have the means to fight today. I’m not saying it’s not a widespread flu, I’m just saying it’s not as life-threatening as the media wants us to think.

    Really, my point is simply this: Keep your eyes on the dealer. Count the count.

  3. I just really like to wear surgical masks. Don’t ruin this for me Joe.

    Any reason, no matter how overly mischaracterized or overblown, that allows me to get out my mask and wear it in public is a good reason.

    It’s like if there were a Back To The Future pandemic I’d be wearing my red, puffy life-preserver vest right now.

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