Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine flu and the media

Does the media coverage of the swine flu outbreak help or hurt? The obvious answer is "yes."

The media often goes too far in pushing a story. They trumpet the frightening details in an attempt to make the stories more "personal and accessible", yet often fail to provide any perspective.

The swine flu story is a good case in point. Often touted is the statistic of "over 150 deaths in Mexico". Buried much further down is the fact that over 2000 persons have contracted the disease. That makes the mortality rate 7.5%--high by American standards, to be sure, but no statistics are given on the mortality rate of more normal flu viruses in Mexico. Besides, Mexican health care and American health care are no comparable.

On the contrary, so far the opposite seems true. Over 75 cases have now been reported in six other countries world-wide, America included. So far there have been no deaths. If the Mexican mortality rate were the norm, then we could expect 5-6 deaths elsewhere so far. And compared with Mexico, the number of cases elsewhere represent only about 4% of the total worldwide spread.

Could this number increase? Quite probably. More advanced countries are already moving to slow or stop the spread of the disease, but other nations will likely experience much higher infection rates--some may even make Mexico seem statistically small by comparison. But I suspect that in the long run swine flu will be no more a pandemic than avian flu or SARS.

The media also does a poor job of deeper investigation. While this could be from a lack of information at this stage, there is doubtless more information they could provide. Of those 150 deaths in Mexico, how many were children or elderly--the typical victims of flu--as opposed to healthy adults? How many of those deaths already had poor health or other medical complications? We don't know, and the media is in no rush to find out.

But the reality is that while any death from flu is unfortunate, it is typically the weakest who succumb. The average adult in moderate to good health is unlikely to experience more than an inconvenience after contracting the virus. This is mostly under-reported in the media. The facts are often present, but seldom are the dots connected for easy public comprehension.

However, in spite of this, the media probably does as much or more than any other group to help stop the spread of such diseases. Knowledge is power. Those most likely to get the disease are those who do not know there is even a danger.

When the media pushes "epidemic" stories as they are doing with swine flu the public is aware and can act accordingly. While there is far more over-reaction than is necessary, when the general public takes steps to avoid infection it usually works. People become more health-conscious and start washing their hands more, using disinfectants more, and avoiding public places as much as they can. Those who get sick tend to stay home more readily, limiting the exposure to others. These tactics alone can be quite effective, even without vaccines or government programs.

Swine flu is not an epidemic. Nor is it likely to become one, at least in most countries. And while the media deserves some criticism for not providing more perspective, they should also be thanked for getting the word out. An informed public is a safer public.

1 comment:

Dan Stratton said...

I agree with your analysis. It is not an epidemic yet. And we see news stories like this one: http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D97R64300&show_article=1 that the U.S. is too muted.