Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I don't know what the heck is the matter with me . . .

I'm going to write about the friggin' swine flu. Okay, the reason I can't help myself is because the pandemic of hype and paranoia really did happen, so it needs a post-mortem. Andrew Jack, writing in the BMJ (behind the subscription wall, screw 'em) makes a few good points about what was done right and wrong. Among the wrong (edited by YT into a list):

  1. Egypt used the virus as a pretext to cull pigs, most of which are raised by its Coptic Christian minority.

  2. Russia rapidly banned pork from Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

  3. China imposed aggressive and lengthy quarantine measures.

  4. [T]he US, and many other individual countries (and companies) swiftly recommended against "non-essential travel," contradicting WHO’s advice that such moves were disruptive while doing little to prevent the spread of the virus.

I note that the latter measure merely added to the widespread public perception that something important and dangerous was going on, which was not the case. As Jack points out, the U.S. and the other countries mentioned are signatories to International Health Regulations which stipulate that any such measures which go beyond WHO regulations should be supported by scientific justification. These were not.Jack has also reported something in the Financial Times that I had not seen reported in the U.S.:

Tough US import controls on biological materials, introduced after the September 11 2001 attacks, hindered the rapid identification of the H1N1 virus because samples from infected Mexican patients had to be sent to Canada for analysis instead of the US. Health officials said the detour highlighted how bureaucratic attempts to protect the US from terrorist attacks had backfired.

In other words, the paranoia is far more damaging than the threat, once again. And, as Jack concludes, the six-point pandemic scale is particularly misleading. As the WHO kept raising it from 4 to 5 and then talking about raising it to 6, fear mongers such as Daily Kos's DemFromCT fed us breathless bulletins about how the apocalyptic Stage 6 was about to descend upon us. As Jack so aptly observes, "While it is still early to make judgments about the infection and fatality rates of the current virus, some weighting may need to be introduced. To most people, a pandemic with a lower human impact than seasonal flu is no pandemic at all."

Indeed. This was a Chicken Little incident and that has the potential to do great harm. When something real happens, people won't believe it.

Personal Note: It's supposed to be a crime for bloggers to skip a few days. I have found my recent retreat from civilization restorative of perspective. Perhaps I will offer some of that anon.

1 comment:

kathy a. said...

there are rules about how often bloggers must post? eh. ignore them.

but you caught my attention with 9/11 rules meaning that samples from suspected swine flu victims had to go to canada, instead of the US. holy cow. there is a lot of stupidness yet to be unraveled, apparently.