Flu Fears

Posted April 28, 2009, at 4:43 p.m.

There are three possible reactions to the recent reports about the swine flu in Mexico: a heightened fear for the health of one’s family and friends; a ho-hum dismissal of the news of the outbreak as so much media hype; or a modest but prudent modification of behavior to avoid contracting the illness.

The media’s role in ensuring that the last response is the dominant one is key. Too often, news outlets — especially those that must broadcast 24 hours each day — embrace tragic stories with a bit too much gusto. The teen girl who goes missing on a trip to some exotic location, the tornado that tears up a trailer park and the shark that takes a bite out of a surfer all make for emotional story lines and good visuals. But none should persuade us to live our lives differently, because the threat from each is so remote and random.

This time, though, the media can play a useful role. The swine flu, which has killed scores in Mexico and infected dozens in the United States, has some health officials thinking about the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. That flu, which spread through much of the world, killed between 20 million and 100 million, including more than 500,000 in the U.S.

Europe, the U.S. and other nations were embroiled in the First World War at the time of the pandemic. The global deployment of millions of young men, many who had never traveled beyond their home county, probably hastened the spread of the disease, as did the close proximity in which sol-diers must live.

The war also meant a censorship of news, which delayed awareness of the disease. In fact, it was dubbed the Spanish flu in part because that nation was neutral during the war and had no news blackout when the disease spread there.

U.S. and Maine officials are responding to the current outbreak of swine flu with appropriate caution and planning. We expect them to “overreact” in the sense that they should anticipate the worst and hope for the best. Just like the fears about the supposed Y2K calamity, it is better to be safe than sorry and unprepared.

Those who report the news should focus on facts, not hypothetical scenarios. And the media can dispense practical advice for an appropriate individual and family response, such as endorsing frequent hand-washing (alcohol-based soaps are best), coughing into a sleeve rather than a hand or the air, avoiding contact with sick people, staying home if not feeling well and seeing a physician if the flulike symptoms persist.

Public officials should, as warranted, close schools, dormitories, large offices, malls and sporting events to further ensure the flu stays contained. Those decisions must be left to those with the expertise.

Much remains to be learned about the current outbreak and its severity and trajectory. In the meantime, personal caution and government preparedness are warranted.

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