Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Also Hate the Flu

Or perhaps, I should say that I hate the media's reaction to the flu. The circus surrounding the swine flu (or N1H1 if you want to sound all smart and stuff, or Mexican flu if you want to sound like you're an Israeli health minister) is idiotic.

Here's the thing, if you work in the CDC or some sort of health agency, I expect you to take this seriously and maybe even get a little worried. It'll get you off your ass and stop you from eating doughnuts in the staff break room long enough to make sure something like this doesn't turn into a pandemic. After all, flu is the perfect vehicle for a true pandemic. It's highly contagious, airborne, and incubates long enough to allow the infection to spread far and wide, unlike Ebola, which kills you so fast it can't even hitch a ride to the next town. For the rest of us, however, it's really stupid to care about this right now. First, there isn't really anything you can do that you shouldn't already be doing to prevent the disease from spreading. You should already be washing your hands, sneezing into your arm, and staying out from work or school when you are actually sick. Second, this thing isn't even a big deal right now. Fewer than 4,000 people worldwide have been suspected of having this version of the flu. That's right, out of the billions of people in the world, the number of people who've had this flu would be about the equivalent of the population of one really large suburban high school. As for deaths, there are only nine confirmed and 177 suspected worldwide.

Remember SARS? Yeah, that turned out to not be a very big deal. It only killed 774 people before it petered out. The bird flu? It can't even jump from human to human yet and most of the people who caught it actually lived in the same building as the birds that gave it to them. West Nile Virus? Less than a four percent fatality rate in serious infections.

Sure, I'm taking about hundreds of deaths as if they were nothing, and that does seem rather callous of me, but these are diseases that really are only moderately worse than an average strain of the regular influenza virus and often seem to fade away after the initial outbreak. To put it in perspective, there has been an average of about 713 deaths a year among American soldiers in Iraq, and that's just the Americans. It doesn't count the other allies or the much higher number of Iraqis killed since March 2003. Remember, that's just one small war in one of the most peaceful eras in the history of the human species and we're worried about the flu. If you're a healthy person who's not elderly or younger than a preschooler and you're not too proud to go to a doctor when you're sick, none of these flu and flu-like diseases are going to kill you. You'll feel like crap for a week and then you can brag at parties that you lived through the swine flu/bird flu/SARS/West Nile/disease du jour. It's an instant ice breaker, as long as you don't currently have the sniffles.

Until then, please beg the media to stop talking about this. We really need to save our overreactions for the next coming of the bubonic plague, shark attacks, and little white girls who've been kidnapped. Hell, maybe the television news stations could even find some room to address something of actual importance.

Yeah, right.


Julie said...

I disagree for the following reason: most people do not do the things that you think they do. You said it yourself. They "should" but that doesn't mean they do.

I frequently see people not wash their hands in the bathroom and for those that do, the vast majority don't understand that it takes more than five seconds to actually get them clean.

Also, I can't remember the last time I saw someone (other than myself) sneeze or cough into their elbow. Most people still use their hands.

Oh yeah, and most people still don't stay home from work when they're sick.

Face it, Jacob. The American public needs to be educated. Sorry that annoys you.

Jacob said...

And you seriously think that the blowing a minor disease outbreak out of proportion is going to do anything about it when SARS, Bird Flu, West Nile and Kindergarten didn't?

I have nothing against public health education. I just think taking up time to worry about things that don't need the worry is stupid.

Jacob said...

And how much of the coverage is educational? I'm sure there's been some education in the coverage somewhere, but most of it is urgent updates on some kid in Texas getting sick or questions about whether or not this will kill us all.

Theresa B said...

Okay, Jacob, I was with you all the way until the last paragraph when you suggested overreacting to bubonic plague.
No, no, no. We get a few cases of plague every few years out here and I'm tired of the media having conniptions about it.
But other than that, I agree.

On the other hand, now I have a great excuse to skip work if I need one in the next few weeks... ;-)

courtney said...

Theresa, I think Jacob was kidding in that last paragraph. I'm guessing the reason the media reacts to your few cases of bubonic plague is for the weirdness factor -- most people don't realize that the plague is still around.

Jacob, remember when we were copy editors during the whole SARS hoopla, and the AP wire was full of photos of Asian people wearing surgical masks? They're back! People in surgical masks, all over the news! (I guess that's the only way to illustrate the flu, other than with pictures of pigs.)

Julie said...

Hey - it's more exciting than a picture of a gas pump.

Chris said...

Has another white girl been kidnapped?! How did I miss this?

News of actual importance would be much harder to explain, not to mention harder to illustrate visually.

A Free Man said...

No, you're absolutely right. As a scientist, I'm constantly annoyed by the media's complete lack of understanding and melodramatic overreaction to both scientific findings and health scares. The swine flu is just the latest thing for the talking heads to yammer on nonsensically about.

Chris said...

"Yammering On" would actually be a very fitting title for one of those news commentary shows on CNN. I might actually watch that just for the honesty of the title.

Nah. Forget it. I wouldn't.

Jacob said...

Chris, have you noticed that your recent comments have dealt as much with previous comments as they have the original posts? Odd.

Mickey said...

I am unconcerned about this as well. Thank you.

Chris said...

Are you accusing me of not reading your posts yet leaving comments anyway to make it seem like I have? I wouldn't do that, would I?

You might notice my first comment on this post was strictly inspired by the post. For some reason, I came back and left a second comment that was in response to another commenter. And now, God help me, I'm leaving a third comment, which is a reply to your comment about my comment.

I've got to get back to work before this gets out of hand.

Jacob said...

I actually wasn't accusing you of anything. I just thought it was funny that most of your recent comments were kind of comments about comments.