Swine Flu Fantasies

A testing epidemic, spread by media ignorance

Two very unfortunate realities explain the recent frenzy of public mask wearing, cable TV fear marketing, and the waste of probably a billion tax dollars worldwide in flu virus surveillance. First, there are the tunnel-visioned infectious disease prevention bureaucracies, which tout their epidemiological monitoring as the frontline protecting human health. Then there's the half-witted media propagandists, who wouldn't know the inside of a biology lab from a Labrador Retriever, and who avoided Statistics 101 like the plague.

I write while traveling late May in the South Pacific, where tens of thousands of passengers like me are greeted daily by an army of health ministry workers in New Zealand and Australia, collecting special health report forms from generally healthy passengers, and even video-capturing each face that passes by their airport control points. Late May. That's over a month since it should have been obvious to anyone with elementary logic skills that the pig flu is no uglier than hundreds of its viral cousins.

What separates H1N1 or "swine flu" (pity the poor pork producers) from other genetic code written in nucleic acid and wrapped in a little protein—the definition of a virus—is not an epidemic of illness or death. It's an epidemic of testing.

If you do a Google search for news from the first week of the "epidemic," you will find that Mexican health authorities counted 159 deaths as of April 28, as reported in The New York Times. A month later, when you might expect that number to be appreciably higher, the Associated Press listed the death toll in Mexico at 89—with the AP conveniently forgetting to report the nearly 100% disparity from the earlier statistic. That same AP story noted that the "world's death toll" was 108.

By April 29, Mexican health authorities were triumphantly heralding the discovery of "patient zero," a little boy in the town of La Gloria, who had suffered some flu-like symptoms a few weeks earlier and had fully recovered—again, according to the Times. In the same story, however, the Times also reported that, "Before Édgar fell ill, another person in San Diego may have been affected, said Dr. Miguel Ángel Lezana, Mexico's chief government epidemiologist." So much for patient zero.

Within a couple of weeks of that triumph of Mexican epidemiology, we learned no virus had been detected by testing swine at the pig farm near little Édgar Hernández's home. (Pity the poor little boy and his tearful mother, who lamented the world's fingering her son as the source of the Great Swine Flu of 2009.)

A few more than 100 deaths in the past month would be no more than a fraction of those who die each day in the U.S., Mexico, and the rest of the world from the amorphous disease described by the medical term of art, "the flu."

Indeed, the New York school children who tested positive for it in late April yet suffered nothing more than sniffles and tummy aches, provided early confirming anecdotal evidence that H1N1 was no killer bug.

So why the pig flu panic? Thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—and all the health ministries they influence, like those in New Zealand and Australia—the world was subjected to frenetic surveillance of a single "new" flu strain.

If similar resources were used to check for other strains of virus causing other cases of flu-like illness during the same time period, mothers around the globe would have been panicked by some other viral code, though perhaps one with a less scary and dirty-sounding name.

But the well-funded CDC and WHO, not to mention those health ministries in New Zealand and Australia, wouldn't have had the necessary threat to yield them even bigger budgets from politicians pandering to a panicked public. And that panic, of course, has been provoked by science-challenged "news" organizations that propagandize for the virus-obsessed health agencies.

Epidemiologists studying communicable diseases are not the first or even second line of defense for our health. Strong immune systems are. It was their immune systems—not the CDC and WHO, not doctors, not drug peddling pharmaceutical companies—that protected those school children in New York, a few of whom had been to Mexico, where, like much of the developing and third world, poor nutrition and exposure to drinking water polluted by old bacterial pathogens weakens natural immunities to disease.

But proper nourishment and clean water don't have public relations advisors like the CDC and the WHO. So what we might call "flu-ism" spreads, a psychological phenomenon that can make us stupid as pigs, but not actually very ill.

Terry Michael is director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism. Read his Reason archive here.

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  • DADIODADDY||

    OINK

  • Syd||

    Remember it will probably come back this fall. Hopefully the mild version.

  • ||

    Compare this panic to the financial one.

  • ||

    The government isn't trying to nationalize Theraflu. Yet.

  • ||

    Haven't you read "The Stand" be afraid, be very afraid.

    I actually blame the makers of soap. Always wanting you to "buy" their product, and "wash" your hands.

    It's all a big scam!

  • ||

    Bah! West Nile virus is what's going to kill us all. Or was it Avian flu? I get so confused. Maybe it was AIDS that would decimate humanity.

    I concede the possibility of a global pandemic along the lines of the flu of 1918(date?). I just don't consider it likely.

  • ||

    My money is on an airborne variant of Ebola. With a 2 week contagious non symptomatic incubation. 5.937 billion dead.

  • ||

    J sub D, tell me you haven't forgotten the zany acronym hijinks of SARS.

  • libertarian democrat||

    In my hospital, we got constant updates from the head of ID here, and basically all of them said that we were to remain alert, and to not come in to work if sick with potential flu symptoms, but otherwise not to worry.

  • ||

    My money is on an airborne variant of Ebola.

    "Ebola Cola: The Infection That Refreshes!"

  • ||

    Remember it will probably come back this fall. Hopefully the mild version.

    Code Name: Trixie

  • the innominate one||

    Ebola's worst forms are probably too virulent for their own good and are unlikely to cause a pandemic.

    Statistics, statistical analysis and critical thinking should be high school graduation requirements everywhere.

  • ||

    "Statistics, statistical analysis and critical thinking should be high school graduation requirements everywhere."

    definitely, but don't forget to throw in some basic economics, while you are at it.

  • Zeb||

    Swine flu: just like regular flu except less serious and less common.

  • T||

    Swine flu: just like regular flu except less serious and less common.

    But with extra added panic!

  • ||

    Latest from WHO via Brietbart " World getting closer to swine flu pandemic"

    http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=CNG.c13c2b4aae8299c6aed1ebbf343d976b.a21&show_article=1

    ... who to believe, who to believe...?

    Personally, I'm goin' with "Strong immune systems ... " as the answer.

  • ||

    DID YOU JUST COUGH? GODDAMMIT MAN, WE'RE ALL DEAD NOW!

    SECRET SERVICE! GET ME TO A NUNNERY!

  • No Name Guy||

    "Statistics, statistical analysis and critical thinking should be high school graduation requirements everywhere."

    If that were the case, where would the modern Democratic party find anyone stupid enough to vote for their obviously inane economic / social policies (bailouts, nationalized health care, socialist security, etc.)?

  • No Name Guy||

    But enough snark....

    This was all a power grab, plain and simple. Gotta keep the sheeple all worked up so sugar daddy big government can lead them to safety.

    Shoot, the most basic of statistical analysis (# deaths / # cases) indicated this wasn't a very dangerous disease - less than 1% last time I ran the numbers. Ebola is something like a 50% fatality rate.

  • the innominate one||

    Some strains of Ebola have a 90+% mortality rate, which makes them dangerous to those who contract it, but less likely that they'll become pandemics, because the chain of transmission will likely be broken by the death of the host, unless the virus makes it to a densely populated area.

  • ||

    It looks like events are proving that the author of this article is a fool.

  • ||

    Wow, this is reason.com? Where is the reasoning? How can you reason about pandemic based on 2 months worth of spotty data? This flu may replace one or more seasonal variants and become seasonal itself. Until then, it is difficult to reason how this flu will change but very easy to know that it will.

  • ||

    I challenge Terry Michael to tell me he or she knows of one single person who actually panicked about swine flu.

    Michael's hyperbolic hysteria about swine flu panic is typical of scoffers who perceive the public as morons, the way many officials do.

    Michael thinks there was a frenzy of panic -- but (I bet) without having seen or known of an actually identifiable person who panicked.

    And officials always think everyone is about to panic -- without being able to recall a single past incident when people under their leadership panicked because of alarming news.

    I challenge a publication with a name like "Reason" to use more acute observation, more accurate terminology, and most of all more reason and less hyperbolic hysteria in its articles.

    And by the way, when a novel pathogen first emerges, there is usually no way to immediately know how dangerous it is. Prudent precautions later look like "hysteria" if the pathogen turned out to be a teddy bear.

    Remember after the tsunami, all those people along the coast who ran up a hill every time there was a new earthquake? As long as no tsunami came along, the media said they "panicked." Had a tsunami come along, they would have been called something different: survivors.

  • ||

    So, would anyone care to discuss if maybe NOT stopping the spread of this virus AT THIS POINT IN TIME might be our best course of action?

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