Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Fear and Flu

Kudos to Revere, for two enlightening posts on flu — which bear on an important issue in the health realm today.

Last Tuesday, a post by Revere at Effect Measure highlighted the effect that cultural anxieties have on the production of scientific knowledge — specifically with regard to modes of contagion.   In the 1920s, a time of worry about immigrants and socialists, public health “concentrate[d] on society’s most marginal people, in keeping with the Zeitgeist.”  Thus Typhoid Mary, and other concerns about germ carriers.  By contrast, when the environment is of most concern, people worry about transmission via objects — fomites in our odd epidemiology jargon (from Latin fomes:  touchwood or tinder).  There are reminders to wash hands after touching the subway handholds, not to handle other kids’ toys, to think about doorknobs.

On Thursday, “Swine flu this fall:  turbulence ahead” took the time to work through the results of mathematical modeling — a highly readable post which explains why some modeling results suggest a rationale for the belief that swine flu might spread intensely in the northern hemisphere this fall.  Revere does the favor of reminding the reader that models are not always good predictors of what will happen.

History shows that the metaphors that guide scientists’ focus in tracking contagion aren’t always perfectly either/or.   They don’t alternate neatly between people-directed or environment-directed, that is — more typically, many myths and metaphors compete for attention, with certain ones winning out at any given moment.  Now, the alleged toxicity of the environment seems very compelling to some people, and there are also contagion concepts based on fears of foreigners, suspicions of supposedy nefarious corporations, worries about open borders, anxieties about public education, concerns that governments keep secrets, and so forth.

The guiding metaphors for contagion breathe life into moral, political, or profit-making campaigns.  The magic-bullet concept remains compelling, for instance, and perhaps accounts for some of the interest not only in Tamiflu but in whether or not flu strains are resistant to it, and whether or not it will be made available,  to whom, and at what cost.  There’s a post at H5N1 on this today.

But there’s an overarching truth about swine flu:  our society can’t seem to leave it alone.  No matter how small the tally of confirmed H1N1 flu deaths (WHO counted 1154 as of the end of July, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control‘s report today puts the number of deaths at 1645 — but even the higher number yields an exceptionally low case-fatality ratio:  under 0.1%, roughly on the order of seasonal flu.  So this remains a far-reaching but so-far mild outbreak.

Yet the question of whether or not it will become more severe — more virulent, more deadly — remains front and center for public health people, and stays alive as a media story.

Okay, yes, it’s important to be prepared.  It would be shameful if there were deaths that would have been preventable with a little forethought and planning.

That accounts for the assiduous tracking by serious public-health people.  But what accounts for the prominence of this rather mild outbreak in the public consciousness?

This is an era of epidemics.  Which is to say, it is an era of fear.  There must be something wrong, it is so easy to think.  This is not just the work of media (although they help, and it doesn’t hurt that playing on fear sells).  It runs deeper than that.  Our modern civilization seems, sometimes, deeply uncomfortable with the world we’ve created.

Last Thursday, for instance, the  New York Times ran a story featuring a study that claimed TV viewing is linked to blood pressure increases in kids.  It’s a story of toxicity in the constructed environment — of the ways contemporary arrangements are inherently and latently harmful (yes, latently:  TV isn’t causing kids to shoot other kids, at least not in this story; it is allegedly causing them to develop a so-called risk factor for later harm).

How do we keep an eye on flu, or other outbreaks, and seek ways to protect everyone from harm as best we can, but avoid hysteria about contaminated toys, subway riding, TV viewing, processed foods, and so forth?  This is a challenge.  It means examining what makes us anxious, and it means understanding that life has risks that can’t be avoided.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 9th, 2009 at 8:00 pm and is filed under Disease, epidemics, Health Professions, Myths, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.