Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Disease Cycles: The Rebirth of Flu

Flu has taken on the resonance of other big diseases in the culture – autism, AIDS, breast cancer, and the like.  We don’t have a ribbon yet, or run/walk fundraisers, but what was once an everyday affliction has become an epidemic of interest.

Based on the evidence of the last few weeks, officials are going to be expected to generate substantial plans to curtail a pandemic whenever something out of the ordinary happens with flu – whenever they say that an outbreak can “no longer be contained.” And they’ll be applauded – as Margaret Chan is in a paean in yesterday’s NY Times – for (as Chan herself puts it) “managing a high pressure crisis … with a sense of urgency.”  Pharmaceutical companies will be urged (and paid, of course) to produce extra-large lots of vaccine and antivirals.

In other words, flu will have followed the pattern set by many other illnesses, both real and imagined.  We live with them for a time; we figure them as being among the countless travails of normal life; they’re unremarkable, even if lamentable. At some point, they seem to resonate with specific anxieties, and we become more attuned to their occurrence.  They become epidemic threats (or, with flu, a “pandemic threat”).

Tuberculosis had a trajectory like this – an unremarkable cause of suffering and death for centuries, until it came to be associated with ethereal spirituality.  Later on, TB took on a new resonance because of its association with poverty, which by the 20th century had started to carry an ideological flavor (or several flavors).

Syphilis had many meanings heaped on it, but it only came to be seen as a public health problem when the Progressive movement shaped it into a rationale for combining moralism with medicine, ca. 1900.  And syphilis became a social crisis after the Progressives’ approach called for epidemiologists to make sense of it (statistical findings always help craft the narrative of rising threat), and the new data helped to further the narrative of social failing and personal misbehavior.

The flu scene is thick with epidemiologists now, fogged with rumors about what went wrong, and filled with theories about causes.  This is exactly what it takes to create an epidemic.  Some people think that’s good, because more attention will be paid, and more funding appropriated, and we’ll be better able to “fight” flu.  That remains to be seen.  In any case, you have to wonder who is going to benefit, and what the price will be.

Tags: , , , .

This entry was posted on Monday, May 11th, 2009 at 7:14 am and is filed under Disease, Narratives, Outbreaks. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.