Influenza A(H1N1) and the media

This post was going to be a rant about how the media sucks. The media does suck, make no mistake, but they’re not the only ones.

I feel that the way the media had handled this swine flu outbreak has been more a part of the problem than the solution. Just like entertainment, the news needs your attention. Attention means money, and the news is just as much a business as any other media outlet. To get your attention, they can really spin the facts to try to get you to take notice.

Take April 29, for example. The WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan announced that the influenza threat was being increased from level four to level five. She was quite explicit in stating the reason for the increase:

This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharmaceutical industry and the business community that certain actions should now be undertaken with increased urgency, and at an accelerated pace.

There’s no need to run around screaming. This is more a call to action, alerting governments and health agencies that they’ll need to be ready for what comes in case things take a turn for the worst. Fair enough.

So what was the headline on CNN? “WHO fears swine flu pandemic imminent.” The CBC did not take this sensational approach in the headline of their story. It was “WHO boosts pandemic alert level to 5.” Instead, the CBC held off until the lead paragraph:

The World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its global pandemic alert level to five — its second highest level — meaning a pandemic is imminent and countries must finalize preparations to deal with the outbreak of swine flu.

In preparing to write this post, I read Chan’s speech as well as what the threat levels mean. It’s not nearly as simple as one would think, or hope.

According to the WHO site, influenza threat level five is defined this way:

Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

So in her speech, the WHO Director-General almost re-defined the meaning of the phase five threat. She said nothing of any imminent threat. On the other hand, the media didn’t blow things out of proportion as I thought. No, they were repeating the WHO’s own definitions.

According to the phase five definition, we have a flu pandemic every year. And the yearly flu season reaches phase six every year because the disease is not limited to a single region.

So I’m back to thinking the media sucks. The H1N1 strain has more potential for danger than our typical yearly flu, but the WHO threat phases make no distinction about this. Instead of informing us, the media ran with the most sensational headline they could manage without lying.

From the very beginning, I couldn’t understand why so much fuss was being raised. Certainly the disease is serious and steps need to be taken to contain it, but it seemed that the actual effects didn’t match the doomsday pronouncements I read in news stories.

Last week, around the time phase five came into effect, the total number of confirmed H1N1 deaths was eight. Every death is a tragedy, make no mistake, but let’s look at the bigger picture. The average number of flu-related deaths in Canada every year is in the area of 2000. I just didn’t understand what basis the media had for panic.

Digging a little deeper, I heard two key facts.

  • This H1N1 outbreak seems to be far more lethal to Mexicans than to those who have caught it in the United States and Canada. No one seems to know why … and when there are such big gaps in our knowledge about diseases, there’s reason for concern. Not panic, mind you, but concern.
  • Also, the flu, and H1N1 in particular, is a squirrelly virus. It doesn’t seem to be terribly dangerous in its current state, but viruses mutate. It’s possible that with a small change, we could be looking at a pandemic truly worthy of that name … something on the level of the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. It probably won’t happen, but it could.

And as if to justify my scepticism about the panic the news media seems intent on pushing, Mexico’s health secretary, Jose Angel Cordova, said today that the flu outbreak “is in its declining phase.” This is certainly not the time to stop measures to prevent the disease’s spread, but I’m thinking that we won’t have to confront the spectre of thousands of deaths, and certainly not millions.

As it stands today, there have been 898 confirmed cases of this flu with 20 deaths. Here’s hoping there are no more.

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One Comment

  1. Shawn
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 09:12 | Permalink

    The scary take away is the possible mutation issue. The Spanish flu came around in the spring and was mild, but when it returned in the fall, all hell broke loose and then the millions died. This scare me more than what is happening now. and i will continue to have my weekend treat of a few strips of bacon.

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