Hype or right?

Did the media overplay swine flu or perform a valuable public service?
Brian Lilley | May 10 2009 | comment  



Well if there is a modern-day proof that the world entered swine flu hysteria, it is that the social media site Twitter was registering 10,000 tweets or posts per hour regarding the porcine influenza. Much of the information on Twitter and other social media sites, according to experts, is gossip and speculation. I don’t think that should bother us; it sounds like the chatter at a bar. In some ways, that is what these social media are; online bars where people can chat while drinking beer at home.

Yet a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 30th opined that “Aiding the swine flu scammers is the persistent rumours and fear-mongering that is spreading across social networking sites such as Twitter, on which swine flu has been one of the hottest topics this week.” You see, it seems some people are trying to cash in on the buzz about swine flu with promises they can help you avoid getting it.

While that kind of behaviour is hardly ethical, you’ll excuse me for stating the obvious here, but caveat emptor. If you are taking medical advice from a website that amounts to a personal blog scrunched into 140 characters, you deserve what you get; which likely won’t involve swine flu but rather a giant sucking sound as some online scammer empties your wallet in exchange for a “swine flu prevention kit.”

Almost as persistent as the stories about swine flu have been the stories that the media is overplaying the severity of this flu outbreak. The Guardian ran several pieces over a number of days at the end of April about how much the media was overdoing this story, “Mad journalism disease is now raging through the media” declared Simon Jenkins. Frankly, I think the media is hyping the fact that they think the media is hyping this up. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me either, but then again neither does the media navel gazing we’ve been subjected to. Oh look, now I’m joining in.

Simon Tisdall, also at The Guardian, seems more concerned with the fact that while we chat, or at least were chatting, endlessly about swine flu, tragedies such as the wars in the Congo and Somalia, the oppression in Burma and in China were being ignored. Apparently Mr. Tisdall never heard the famous line from the actor and comedian Mel Brooks “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” That’s Mr. Brooks’ rather harsh way of saying that we really care most about what happens to us. In the early days of the swine flu scare, the possibility of a pandemic virus replicating the Spanish Flu of 1918 is what was concerning many people; just look at all those tweets on Twitter, the posts online and the emails from your long lost cousin.

I’ve been making light of some of the reaction to a very serious issue because some of the reaction has been downright silly. Far from over-hyping, I think doctors and journalists (for the most part) played this one right. Yes, there were some trumped up stories, some less than stellar coverage, but on the whole, I think we got this one right.

When an official with the World Health Organization announces that they are moving to a “Phase 5” of pandemic alert, that is news; news that needs to be passed on to the public. With 25 countries now reporting 2,500 confirmed infections, I wonder what the reaction would have been from the public, or the men at The Guardian had the media chosen to ignore the flu outbreak in Mexico as “nothing to worry about.”

I’ve spent several days at the Health Canada headquarters in Ottawa for the regular press briefings from our Canadian Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq and Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Butler-Jones. When I asked Canada’s top doctor whether we in the media, were making too much of this flu outbreak and were just scaring people, he said no. While the good doctor took some exception to the TV images of people wearing masks (mostly because he says they won’t protect you), Dr. Butler-Jones said the interaction with the media was positive.

We’ve had some important pieces of information come out of those briefings and similar ones conducted by public health authorities around the world. As sales and inquiries about Tamilfu and anti-viral drugs grew, Dr. Butler-Jones and his colleagues were able to tell the public, through the media, that the use of Tamiflu now by the general population would do more harm than good.

There was the ability to have real medical experts explain that pandemic, in its proper medical usage, meant that an infection was widespread geographically and had no bearing on the severity of the disease. We could calm peoples fears by noting that while this virus was new, unknown and therefore to be feared, thousands around us die from regular flu each year.

With death and infection rates seemingly higher in Mexico, the question arose, is this the same virus? Does Mexico have a more virulent strain? When Canadian scientists announced on May 6th that they had mapped the genetic code of the virus taken from samples gathered in Mexico, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, they were able to confirm that it was the same virus, reacting differently in local populations.

My favourite pieces of advice from those briefings were the kindergarten like recommendations to wash your hands regularly and to sneeze into your arm not your hands; simple steps that we all know and yet all forget. It cannot be known whether there were any cases of flu prevented from the implementation of these simple prevention steps put forth by health officials and repeated ad nauseam by folks like me in the media. Perhaps without the media attention, there would have been more infections, more deaths, this “over-hyped” outbreak would have been much worse.

Brian Lilley is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for 1010 CFRB radio in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet.

This article is published by Brian Lilley and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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