Media=bad at flu reporting

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04/29/2009
This is tangentially related to the security industry, but ASIS is tracking the swine flu and people do sell flu-detecting cameras, so I figure it's fair game for me. Basically, the mainstream press sucks at reporting about this whole swine flu thing. Sure, it could be a worldwide pandemic, and I'm not underestimating the potential loss of life and general scariness a flu pandemic can really cause, but it's not quite there yet and what we generally have are a bunch of breathless reports that quote people postulating that things "might get really bad," or some other such nonsense. And what really gets me are the caveats that are always thrown in at the end of reports that "36,000 people die of the flu each year in the United States," etc. Well, if that's true, why is this story a big deal in the first place? For example, let's look at this story that's the top story on Yahoo this morning. Here's the first couple graphs:
WASHINGTON – A 23-month-old Texas toddler became the first confirmed swine flu death outside of Mexico as authorities around the world struggled to contain a growing global health menace that has also swept Germany onto the roster of afflicted nations. Officials say the death was in Houston. "Even though we've been expecting this, it is very, very sad," Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday of the infant's death. "As a pediatrician and a parent, my heart goes out to the family."
Is it very, very sad that a 23-month-old child died yesterday. Yes. Absolutely. My heart goes out to the family, too. As a father of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, this scares the pants off me. However, by my math, 36,000/365 means that roughly 99 people died of the regular old flu yesterday. Were none of them children? Why isn't there a pediatrician being quoted about how his heart goes out to their families? Why isn't there a story every single day about how many people died of the flu yesterday? Because no one cares. We know that 36,000 people die of the flu every year, if not consciously then unconsciously. Bad stuff happens and people die. It's something we've come to accept. Every day on the way to work I hear about some poor teenager who died in a car accident or an ATV accident or, here in Maine, a snowmobile accident. Some poor teenager got killed on my road this month walking home from work in the dark when a pickup truck didn't see him and hit him. All of those things are tragedies, and they sometimes make the cover of my local weekly newspaper, but none of them makes the front page of Yahoo. So why does swine flu make the cover of Yahoo? Because it's called swine flu? Here's the explanation I get in the story:
Sixty-six infections had been reported in the United States before the report of the toddler's death in Texas. The world has no vaccine to prevent infection but U.S. health officials aim to have a key ingredient for one ready in early May, the big step that vaccine manufacturers are awaiting. But even if the World Health Organization ordered up emergency vaccine supplies — and that decision hasn't been made yet — it would take at least two more months to produce the initial shots needed for human safety testing.
Dang. 66 people sick. Now that's a huge problem. And this whole talk of vaccine - has none of them ever got a flu shot? I've taken a flu shot every year since I was teaching high school 10 years ago and it never really works. And does no one remember last year how, oops, they sort of made the wrong vaccines? I got the flu this year. It hammered me. Sickest I've been in years. I had to miss three days of work. Maybe loyal blog readers remember. Did anyone care? Not especially. When I went to the doctor, did she recommend Tamiflu or any other drug to make me feel better? Nope. She told me I was screwed, to go get some rest, and to drink lots of fluids. Could this swine flu be more deadly than whatever "human flu" I was rocked with? Of course, but it's killed one person in the U.S. so far, vs. 36,000 every year, so that evidence hasn't quite presented itself yet. Could it be a pandemic like the one that killed millions of people in 1918? Somehow I doubt it. I think we're a little better prepared these days for that kind of thing. In 1918 people were lucky if they had indoor plumbing. That 1918 is even referenced in some of these stories is irresponsible. Christ, people used to die of simple infections and things like "consumption," which I think was a cold. What's my basic point? Maybe I just felt like a rant. It's not like people shouldn't be informed of what's going on out there. And it's not like people need the latest news on who got voted off Dancing with the Stars more than they need news on swine flu. But I'd like some perspective with my news, a little less idle speculation and more simple reporting. They don't even bother reporting when a U.S. soldier dies in Iraq anymore, but a kid dies of the flu in Texas and it's being read by 50 million people. Doesn't there seem to be something intrinsically wrong with that?

Comments

I'm with you on this one, Sam. This whole thing is overblown. I think you should be on CNN.