Or, to put it in rather more prosaic language, the outbreak of porcine influenza virus that has claimed dozens of lives in Mexico is spreading, and with each day comes news of confirmed cases in North America, Europe and Israel. With each day too we see more and more alarming headlines, such as that in the first link above -
The whole of humanity is under threat- from the esteemed publication The Sun, to choose but one example. How is the public meant to balance these two streams of information? On the one hand we have the World Health Organisation steadily increasing its pandemic alert - currently at phase 5 out of a possible 6 - and on the other we have the likes of the People's Medical Journal (aka the Daily Mail) spouting stories that to many would appear to be parodies. Who to trust - are we doomed, or is the meeja up to its old crying-wolf trick?
This question has occupied, amongst others, Simon Jenkins, who wrote a riotous piece in The Guardian damming the entire episode as hype and scaremongering. In response Dr. Ben Goldacre penned a somewhat more considered article in today's Grauniad, in what he describes rather unfairly on his blog as "possibly the most boring thing I’ve ever written in the Guardian." I respectfully disagree, Ben; boring to some maybe, but it's hugely important to how the country reacts to this latest potential pandemic.
I'll say at this point that Jenkins' frankly absurd suggestion that the World Health Organisation is over-funded has been expertly dealt with by Gimpyblog, and I'll refrain from commenting further on that other than to say that I for one applaud everything in that post that is supportive of scientific research and dissemination thereof.
Jenkins' main contention appears to be that because previous health scares on this scale failed (SARS, Avian flu etc) to materialise into the full-blown 28 Days Later scenario, this current flu outbreak will turn out to be nothing more than
a panic stoked in order to posture and spend.Jenkins goes on to reveal a really quite blasé attitude to influenza:
Flu makes you feel ill. You should take medicine and rest. You will then get well again, unless you are very unlucky or have some complicating condition.Yes Simon, but it's this last bit that's crucial isn't it? Although exact numbers are difficult to find, it is estimated that several hundred deaths per annum are caused by influenza-related respiratory illness in the UK (although these figures relate to influenza and pneumonia together, I haven't yet found reliable figures for influenza alone, presumably because of the lack of molecular analysis from patients...). And this is for plain, vanilla Influenza A, before those pesky porkers sent their virus our way.
Yes of course that's but a fraction of the total deaths from all causes (in the USA it's estimated to be associated with around 7% of all deaths in winter months), but a significant fraction nonetheless. So to say that flu makes you feel ill is somewhat missing the point - yes it does, but it can also kill.
So why the supposition that this too shall pass? Is that any more sensible a position to take than the end-of-the-world doomsday outlook? Well, according to Goldacre, and to this blogger for what it's worth, not really. As Ben points out, from the sparse data available thus far it is nigh on impossible to predict how many will get infected, how many of those unfortunates will fall seriously ill, and how many in turn will die. Too many variables will impact on each of those outcomes. What is certain is that it is responsible and appropriate to make such preparations as we can - applying the precautionary principle seems sensible as in the even of a major pandemic, we need to be prepared to matter how many people voice their concern that this is just another media-driven scare.
Which brings us to what I think is Goldacre's central observation. Following health scares that really have been exaggerated by the Fourth Estate (MMR springs to mind...),
not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts.Quite. Having heard journalists cry wolf for so long without any wolves appearing, the default position of many is now "oh, it's just the press ratcheting up the fear again..." Problem is, istdoes appear as if this time there is a significant risk of pandemic and pandemonium. Which is the point - it's a risk, not a certainty either way, but a risk, and until the public understands the difference and how to deal with it I'm afraid we'll always have the hyperbole and the cynicism, the sandwich-board Armageddon types and the sneering cocksure Jenkins-ites.
Suffice to say that time alone will prove Jenkins right or wrong, as of now I hope it's the former but am more and more concerned that history will prove him to be closer to the latter. Watch this pig-shaped space...