29 April 2009

Here comes The Sun

Like around 25% of the population, I have a photic sneeze reflex - which means on sunny days like today, I regularly sneeze my way down the street. This is not normally a problem, but in these days of Swine Flu frenzy, I expect to be quarantined by vigilantes soon, stoked by the hysteria of the popular press that I might be a carrier. PIG FLU GOES GLOBAL screamed a tabloid headline yesterday, by which they meant NOW WHITE PEOPLE HAVE GOT IT, as a handful of cases were announced in western Europe and Israel.

Nothing the media likes more, of course, than cranking up the hysteria over a health scare, though it is hard to see the fine line between presenting a worse case scenario as likely fact and downright lying. Consider The Metro, which today announced it possible that up to 32 million people in the UK could have contracted the condition by autumn, and presented the London Underground as a natural incubator. This was done in the usual way, by interviewing a scientist and removing all the caveats from a balanced view, emphasising the worst case (but less likely scenarios) and failing to mention any reliable statistics that would allow us to make a balanced judgement.

We've been here before, of course. In November 2002, we witnessed the spectre of a global pandemic, SARS, that threatened to be the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. Millions would die, we were told, and death would stalk the earth like Andy Kershaw after a few lagers. In the end, of course, 775 people perished, most in the country of origin. Or to put it another way 0.000000129% of the global population. Tragic for those affected, but it left most of us to die the way nature intended - cancer, old age, car wrecks, heart disease and diabetes, which don't tend to make the headlines.

And when none of this comes to pass, the papers will shrug their shoulders and move on to the next corpse - where's the harm? Well, if people stop using the tube en masse because of what they read in the press, more of them will drive. And consequently more of them will die or be injured in car crashes from the increased traffic, far more than will ever contract Pig Flu - as we saw after 9/11 when people stopped taking aeroplanes and started driving instead.

I guess you could call it pig ignorance.


PW said...

While I agree that the Sun may be rather sensationalist at times, I don't think the World Health Organization is particularly renowned for its scaremongering. The fact that they have declared we are at pre-pandemic level 5 on their bizarre Richter scale of biological earthquakes suggests there's probably something to worry about. I hope it does all turn out to be a storm in a teacup, but I think it's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because symptoms are seemingly mild at the moment in the developed world. Pandemics tend to come in waves and the 1918 one started with people feeling a bit sneezy and achy. By the time the flu returned some months later, people were falling ill in the morning and pegging it the same night. I also think there are probably thousands of people who've had the mild version in Mexico, but have never been registered by any medical authority. It might be that there's a death rate of 2% and that the developed world hasn't yet seen the volume of cases for this to become fully apparent.

Mike Hoffman said...

But the risk of anyone dying (unless they have been to Mexico) is infintesimal. Almost zero. It's an interesting story, but no risk to the average person, who should be more concerned about crossing the street and not getting hit by all the extra drivers avoiding taking the Underground.