Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Pandemic Fantasies and the News Cycle

As of today (2 May), it seems that the Mexican outbreak of flu was neither as extensive or as deadly as early reports claimed.  The overstating of the situation is testament to our anxiety about epidemics in general and our particular hypersensitivity to any sign that remotely suggests a flu disaster.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we, and especially our health agencies, overreacted to the early news from Mexico.  As Gardiner Harris points out in today’s NYT, the furor seems to have started in mid April when a CDC operative saw a connection between two reports:  One was of two cases of flu in San Diego that represented infection with a virus that contained genetic sequences from flu viruses previously seen only in swine.  The other was of an unusual burst of pneumonia cases in Mexico.  It turned out that the latter came from scans of media reports, which detected news articles reporting on a cluster of severe respiratory illness among adults in La Gloria, Mexico, where pork processing is an important industry.

On 24 April, in its first article to make the link between a flu outbreak in Mexico and isolated cases in the U.S., the NYT led with two facts that would turn out to shape the narrative: the new flu virus contained genetic sequences from pig, bird, and human viruses, and many of the flu deaths in Mexico were young adults (later it would turn out that many of those Mexican deaths were not actually caused by this flu virus – but of course pausing for all the facts would have interfered with the creation of the desired pandemic story). By featuring these two facts, the news story pointed to the 1918 outbreak – the Times article allowed an infectious-disease doc to make the case explicitly, but for readers who know about the 1918 flu the connection would seem obvious.

From there, the horses were out of the gate.  Health agencies, media, and lots of intelligent people began to imagine a coming pandemic.  Who can blame them? Having been prepped by the W.H.O. pandemic preparedness campaign and the U.S. one over the past few years, they were primed to seize on any little piece of news and turn it into the fantasized reprise of 1918.

W.H.O. was probably trying to help when it cranked up its threat barometer from 3 to 4 to 5 (on a 6-point scale).  By issuing warnings, the agency could give leverage to health authorities in poor countries who had to plead with their governments for more funding, and it might have helped shake loose some foreign-aid change from the pockets of the rich countries (at least, this is what I hope the W.H.O. was thinking).  But all the talk about “possible pandemic” just played into visualizing the horror scenario.  Officials haven’t learned that when they say “pandemic” they merely mean “the same flu strain produces human illness in multiple countries,” but when most people hear “pandemic” they hear “tens of millions of people are going to die.”

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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 at 12:10 pm and is filed under Narratives, News, Outbreaks. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.