(This is my column that appears in today’s Dominion Post concerning the news coverage of swine flu. I was a skeptic when the hype began months ago but now believe that the hyperactive predictions aren’t as pathetic as they once were. Even if they are pretty pathetic still.
One portion I want to expand on is the line referring to inaccurate testing methods and self reporting cases. I thought the stats would be worthless when I first heard that WVU was setting up a web site where sick students could self-report they had H1N1 merely on having flu-like symptoms. I still find that the case. I also questioned – and still do – some health care provider’s decisions to not test every person with flu-like symptoms and treat it as swine anyway. I also understand from my nurse & doctor friends that the nose swab tests are anywhere from 30-60% unreliable, mainly depending on how far up the nose one can get the swab in a patient.
Still, the confirmed deaths in West Virginia from flu this early and the large amount of Garrett’s friends who have caught the pig bug have changed my mind somewhat on the “pandemic”. I continue to believe that the hype is still high regarding H1N1, but I also am starting to believe that this is more than just 36-point headlines.)
In today’s world we have more news, data, and information at our fingertips than at any previous point in our history. Locally we have a daily newspaper, two news radio stations, five television stations between Clarksburg and Pittsburgh, and the 24-hour news cycle of cable news and the Internet that bring us updates all day, every day. Normally this is a positive attribute because information is a powerful resource.
Sometimes, though, this easy access to information becomes more harmful and confusing rather than useful. We’ve seen this several times this decade already, especially in the areas of health and disease. SARS, avian flu, and H1N1 have each had their years in the sun of late. My desire for we as citizens and the media would be to find better methods of discussing potential threats. Whether it’s disease, the environment, terrorism, etc., the preview of impacts caused by the occurrence of each is a balancing act. Understate the story and people become ignorant. Overstate the case and people become hysterical. Rather than ride the middle ground and shoot for realistic predictions, it’s not hard to see which line the typical story crosses.
Given the amount of coverage over H1N1, it’s natural for more than a few people to become skeptical. After all, given all the hype over avian flu a couple years ago, World Health Organization (WHO) figures indicate only 442 confirmed cases of H5N1, most in southeast Asia, although the 262 deaths represent a high mortality rate for those infected. What about SARS, the 2003 scare? After all the panic reports a total of 8,273 individuals worldwide were confirmed infected with a death count of 775. Granted, in this day we should be able to minimize the amount of deaths from any disease, but both outbreak scares pale in comparison to seasonal flu that kills hundreds of thousands worldwide annually.
What then to make of H1N1? The coverage has been just as breathless as the other “pandemics” prior, leading to a great number of folks (myself included) to ask if this is once again much ado about very little. This time, however, the cases are coming fast and furious (Although I question if some of the statistics are inflated via the self-reporting and testing methods), with over 500,000 cases and 6,200 deaths. These counts, and the fatalities in Morgantown and West Virginia have erased in my mind doubts about the seriousness of the outbreak. So much so, in fact, that my children should be vaccinated by the time this column prints. A month ago this would not have been the case.
My hope is that news sources will strive to better find the middle ground in reporting potential calamities. Unfortunate results can occur if we feel that the media are crying “Wolf!” when the coverage is accurate.