Lacy MacAuley

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a home for my pen, projects, and passions

why has news of swine flu gone “viral?”

Two years ago, when SARS bird flu fears caused people to kill off flocks and stop eating meat, I was living in San Francisco, at that time considered a hot spot for the virus to reach the US. At that time, I took a zen attitude, made sure to get plenty of rest, fruits, and vegetables, and didn’t worry, even in Chinatown.

It's a media epidemic... what's the swine flu buzz about?

It's a media epidemic... what's the swine flu buzz about?

Now I’m living right down the street from the workplace of one of the confirmed swine flu patients, an Energy Department staffer who had traveled with Obama recently to Mexico, came home and spread it to his family. But am I wearing a surgical mask? Nope.

Some people are very afraid of swine flu. Chinese authorities have been quarantining travelers from Mexico willy-nilly, while the schools of Fort Worth, Texas, keeps its 80,000 students home for a week and people of faith are pushing not just prayer as a solution, but refraining from taking communion wine and even the traditional “handshake of peace.”

So why am I so unconcerned? Because I’ve taken a close look at the numbers. The Center for Disease Control estimates that about 36,000 people in the US die each year from the flu. But swine flu had only killed one person in the US, a Mexican toddler visiting Texas. Much more dangerous than swine flu is lightning strikes, which slay an average of 62 American lives per year, according to the NOAA. There have, however, been about 250 confirmed cases of this flu in the US.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the US, claiming about 820,000 lives in the US in 2006, yet we don’t see people running screaming from McDonalds or buying up all the jogging shoes at Wal-Mart.

Even Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, says “by and large, people should carry on with their normal, everyday lives.” The experts and officials clearly state that the only people who need to change their behavior at all are those who show symptoms of the flu.

So, swine flu is more a disease of the press than the scary pandemic it’s supposed to be. But if so, why has basically every news outlet made a major news item out of a disease that has only claimed one death?

Is this media circus just a news Frankenstein gone out of control – once the media created demand for news on swine flu, it spread like wildfire? Or is this some scheme to sell more papers at a time when many news outlets are in danger of going on the dole? Some believe there is a more sinister reason at work, that someone has gotten the media train rolling, like preparing us to push through pet legislation by the pharmaceutical industry, or an effort by a government agency snatching up our civil liberties, or maybe a larger share of the federal government pie. Still others feel that this could be some smear on immigrants. (Buzz among conspiracy theorists has reached a pitch.) One thing is certain, it is a clear example of the dangers of media hype.

There is no clear indication of why this media storm around swine flu has been so pandemic, but this has certainly been an example of a news item gone, well, viral. Until the numbers get a little more convincing, though, I’m more worried about getting hit by lightning than death by swine flu.

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Filed under: lacy's life, media, thoughts and philosophies

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