May 6, 2009
Lunatic risk assessment can seriously damage your health (and economy, and freedom).
Swine flu has been in headlines nearly two weeks. The media hype is not in any scale to the real thread, it can be good entertainment like circus in ancient Rome and a tool to put the common people’s focus on trivialities. For example if European Parliament elections have attracted quite a few people so far there is now good change that the whole election will be passed unnoticed due the swine flu panic.
“Of course we’re doing too much to scare people,” said Mark Feldstein, a former correspondent for NBC, ABC and CNN who teaches journalism at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.”
Authorities have been feeding the media beast in an attempt to show they are on the case . In EU ministers are gathering to emergency meetings, EC and EP are making statements and taking actions.
Precautions and drama are making good story and progress of infections can be followed on-line in media. Newspapers did their part with big headlines. “Flu Fears Spur Global Triage,” said the Wall Street Journal. “Nation braces for worst as new strain emerges,” said USA Today. “U.S. Steps Up Alert as More Swine Flu Is Found,” said The Washington Post. The New York Post went with “HOG WILD,” complete with a photo of a pig. In Finland one of the main news was about healthy Finnish woman put in quarantine in Hong Kong luxury hotel.
According to Google News, there are 24,000 articles in the last 30 days that talk about swine flu, surpassing 24,000 articles about global warming. One day later, swine flu articles doubled to 50,000+.
Media hype sways not only in peoples minds it has its consequences in business too. In Egypt farmers are on streets because of plan to slaughter pigs even they have only name common with flu. Already China and Russia have banned pork imports from U.S. states reporting swine flu cases. Indonesia has banned all pork imports. Different travel bans has been proposed even in EU level, some companies are already implementing them.
There is already published first conspiracy theory related to swine flu claiming that this new flu is a lab created advanced biological warfare DNA genetically engineered virus that either escaped accidentally from a lab or was deliberately released by a nation or non-state organization.
The sense of proportion is lost
Putting the situation into perspective, one should recall that hundreds of thousands of people die from normal seasonal flu every year. In Finland ten times more people are dying due falling on slippery pavements than people globally to swine flu.
In India half million people dies to tuberculosis, pneumonia kills four million children yearly so in one day more TB deaths and ten time more pneumonia deaths only in India than world-wide estimation of swine flu deaths per year.
SARS was popular thread 2003, pandemic was on the door etc. The result – death rate 800 globally. Bird flu was estimated to kill millions of people, some 13,000-16,000 in Finland only. The result – 260 deaths world-wide.
As swine flu captures the headlines, it emphasizes the threat posed by global diseases, and the concerted policy action they require. As a result, we get an often hysterical response to potential pandemics, but we at least know of their existence.
Despite highly advanced medicines and a sophisticated understanding of infection, the modern disease challenge is as serious ever. However, the debate about what priorities the international community should have in their approach to global health threats is as contentious as ever. Determining which disease to prioritize requires a careful analysis balancing infection numbers, death tolls and the debilitating effects on the community and infrastructure.
Real disease challenge
With the recent outbreak of the swine flu in Mexico — which contains genetic materials from the virus that usually affects birds and pigs – international concern about the international virus epidemics are rising. Considering European history, a prospect of an influenza pandemic on a scale which would dwarf the 1918 Spanish Flu is a frightening scenario. However with swine flu this scenario is quite far away; other diseases are reality already today.
Tuberculosis currently kills 2 million people a year and infects another 5 million. It is an infectious bacterial disease which spreads to the lungs and is fatal if left untreated. Developing countries are worst affected, and HIV/AIDS sufferers’ poor immune systems put them at even greater risk: 30% of people living with HIV also have TB. The most deadly strains of the virus are those such as extremely drug-resistant Tuberculosis (XDR-TB), which are resistant to antibiotics. International action to improve TB control is urgently required.
500 million people are affected by Malaria every year, 2 million are killed. In fact, one child dies from form Malaria every 80 seconds and it costs Africa $12 billion annually. In spite of this, it reminds neglected because it is not immediately threatening worldwide; Just 35 countries account for 98 percent of global malaria deaths, many of which are among the poorest in the world. Malaria is one of the leading causes of death world-wide, especially in the developing world. But Malaria is entirely preventable and an integrated package of malaria control interventions that focuses on relatively simply but proven solutions can greatly reduce the suffering.
HIV/AIDS has swept the globe with alarming speed and devastating consequences. Nearly 40 million people live with the virus worldwide and 2 million die from AIDS-related causes each year. The preventative approach, which in the absence of much progress towards a vaccine is the priority, is bound up with addressing cultural attitudes to sexuality and contraception. Compared to other diseases HIV/AIDS is common also in EU and North America and it still has the kind of “celebrity disease” status. After media hype AIDS research got 100.000 more money than all tropical diseases together. The preventive methods are known some treatment is available but the problems are either in religious beliefs or difficulties to provide medicines countries in Africa where they are needed.
Western aid for diseases in the developing world will not even be available if the current obesity epidemic seizing Europe and North America is not addressed. The prevalence of obesity has tripled in many western countries since the 1980s and in the US, 61% of adults are overweight or obese; in the UK, 1 in 3. While the scale of the problem is slowly being acknowledged, the cure is available there is lack of actions. As revolution in food culture is needed in conjunction with the promotion of exercise is simple cure people in West are selecting easy way – not only cheat pills and pseudo diets but also medical care taking resources away from other diseases.
Replacing real threads with imaginary ones
Media is once again used as tool of policy be it health policy, business interests or cover up of real problems. When the common people are focusing – with help of mainstream media – their attention to swine flu stories the big players can make their operations in peace. For example our economic system is breaking down and billions of public taxpayer’s money is transferred to profits of big companies (or their owners). Cultural intolerance, democratic deficits, clima change or low participation of younger generation to elections are buried to back pages while swine flu is taking headlines.
The reason that swine flu is in the headlines is that it can also kill the wealthy people while old diseases are not because the dead ones are poor. Instead of panicking with imaginary risks of this flu e.g. EU could start to save lives today by considering how the medical breakthroughs or drugs could be distributed to developing countries for free, and not exploited by pharmaceutical companies for decades before their broad release.
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