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A bit more about Swine Flu and media hype

Well folks,

It’s been a few weeks, and the Killer Swine Flu pandemic has fizzled out into yet another overblown media hype fantasy. This raises two questions: why they hype, and what really happened?

1: why the hype?

This is too easy. Hype generates ratings, and ratings are what the media is all about. Of course, we COULD give the media the benefit of the doubt, and credit them with ‘trying to keep the public informed’, but they don’t. If the public really understood what was going on, they H1N1 hype-up story would have fizzled in a day or two instead of cranking ratings for almost a month. Instead of providing accurate information, the media (all of the media) chose to stress the bits of the story that would increase their ratings, and leave out the bits that would close the story down. The result? misinformation causing a lot of stupid decisions that cause a lot of problems (how many schools were shut down?).

2: what really happened?

Once again, this is too easy.

Yes, there was an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, and it MIGHT have originated in Mexico. There was an outbreak of something in Mexico that resulted in a number of people being hospitalized, and a few died. Of course, we don’t know how many people were actually infected, and never bothered to go to the doctor, so we don’t know what percentage of the people that got sick actually required medical care, and of course, we don’t know how many died because of the H1N1 virus. Mexican officials, WHO, and the CDC are all admitting that a lot of the deaths and hospitalizations that were attributed to H1N1 were really caused y something else.

What the media reported (even after we knew it wasn’t true): a whole lot of people in Mexico got the swine flu, and a lot of them died.

Of course, every year a lot of people get the flu, and every year thousands of people die from it. We’ve known that ever since we started tracking disease outbreaks back in the late 1800s. The current H1N1 virus isn’t any more deadly than most of the other flu strains – almost all of the people that get it recover without medical intervention. H1N1 is also no more contagiouse than a ‘normal’ flu strain – something else that we’ve known since very early in the ‘outbreak’.

What the media reported: If you get swine flue YOU’RE GOING TO DIE! Swine flue is SO contagious that if you’re anywhere near someone that has it YOU WILL DIE FROM IT!

Now don’t get me wrong, Swine Flue is real. There IS a new strain, and it certainly unpleasant to get the flu. But lets be realistic about this: the flu makes the rounds every year. Some people die from it, most don’t. Big deal. The current H1N1 does have some scientific interest – it is another demonstration of how viruses can jump from a host species to a new host, and how carriers of multiple viruses can act as a breeding ground that allow the viruses to swap DNA. This is all stuff we already know, but it is a great “in the field” example of stuff that we normally see in the lab under controlled conditions. So what that really means is that the real news story about H1N1 is really something that would interest a small population of virologists (people  that study viruses). Of course, a 20 second “science is cool” news bite doesn’t generate ratings, and this is a story that can be twisted into a media frenzy. It will be interesting to see if this particular media lie lasts as long as the stupidity surrounding the Large Hadron Collider.

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3 Responses

  1. Swine Flue (: …..?

  2. NPR did a piece a few days ago, maybe earlier this week, analyzing the media’s coverage of H1N1. It was interesting for me that they got a doctor – I think she was from the CDC – to come on and say essentially the same things you did here (without the overt indictment of media outlets as being after the sexy lead).

    People seem to have a hard time with moderated reactions. I tend to be cautious rather than panicked. The truth is that I just don’t have the energy for panic most times, and find that, even when I do, it’s rarely warranted.

  3. Dedekusn – yeah, that’s a typo that I can’t seem to keep out of my fingers. I try, but I just can’t seem to find them all… Sigh..

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