Idle Thoughts

Infectivity, Lethality & US Media

My microbiology professor in the late ‘60s often stated .....

My microbiology professor in the late ‘60s often stated what, to him, was a very clear and obvious fact – it was not a case of whether a highly lethal pandemic would sweep the World as had the influenza pandemic of 1918, but of when. That pandemic harvested 3% of the World’s population.

On 29 April 2009, a Mexican child visiting the US was announced as having died of Swine Flu, the first death in the US and the first one reported outside Mexico. On 5 May 2009, US Health officials confirmed the death, in Texas, of the first US citizen, a woman in her thirties with an underlying health condition. At the same time, they said that there had been a spike in the number of confirmed infections, but that this was to be expected. From the 22nd of April until the 11th of May, whilst visiting Montana and Wyoming, I watched, with mounting disbelief, the confrontation of this issue by the US media and by its politicians.

Despite the phenomenal number of channels, I have never rated US TV, mind you, our own UK TV is nothing to write home about, and the channel explosion over recent years has added little, except for sports lovers. Endless repeats of ancient programmes, often on a thrice daily loop, showing long dead actors in their youthful prime and in a golden era that never existed. It is quite possible to live in the past by careful selection of one’s viewing. My enjoyment of Country and Western music stems from a week in ‘Lurvul’ Kentucky a few years ago, when the only decent channel on the TV that allowed me to live in the present was the one playing C&W videos. One might have thought that the ‘News’ channels would have provided a slight anchor to reality, but no!

To be blunt, US ‘News’ is on a constant repeating cycle of local trivia comprehensively flogged to death, or matters of substance given a naïve, ill-researched and breathless makeover. Occasional ‘Breaking News’ adds to the engineered tension, and an almost child-like ability to run around in ever decreasing circles spreads alarm. If there is no issue, one is invented. Most irritatingly, speculation runs riot and the “what ifs” take on a life of their own, the noble attempts of the scientist or the expert to deal in facts and actual risk are swept away in a torrent of “Oh my God!” metaphors swapped by disingenuous anchor-persons. As for ‘Fox News’, it defies belief that such misrepresentation and prejudice is allowed in to be paraded as fact in a mature democracy! The media equivalent of creationism – belief masquerading as science.

The evolution of the media reporting of Swine Flu was interesting, especially as it was being played out against the background of the early days of Obama’s Presidency. Everyone had an opinion and everyone had points to score. At first, the response was low key, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) were outstanding in their preparations and in their pronouncements to the media, giving clear and comprehensive advice and analysis of the situation, and of possible future developments. The ‘News’ anchors merely reported rather than commented. Then came the rise in the number of cases and the early deaths. Again the CDC were measured and comprehensive in their pronouncements, but the journalists began to feed, speculation started and doomsday scenarios began to peek out from under the edges of the anchors’ notes. Vice-President Joe Biden waded in with the comment that he would advise his family not to fly or use the subway; John McCain on being asked his views of the comment, praised the CDC and said that politicians shouldn’t comment from ignorance. A somewhat revolutionary idea! Four days later Biden was making a virtue out of his use of a Delaware Amtrak station!

The Government’s health people and the CDC continued to issue very comprehensive and sensible statements, and came in for praise for their measured and open approach. This was not to last, over the next week or so the mood changed. With a mortality rate seemingly less than seasonal flu and with no mounting death toll, the ‘News’ began to question what all the fuss had been about. Why all the scare-mongering and, anyway, ‘Swine Flu’ was pejorative, it should be called ‘H1N1’! The Health folks came under attack and had to make statements defending their previous comprehensive pronouncements. They attempted to explain that there was no immediate worry, but that a cautious approach was necessary because of the potential for H1N1, a highly infective strain of flu, to mutate or combine with a more virulent strain. They felt that educating the great US public was in everybody’s best interests. Clearly not, they were being alarmist!

Then the World Health Organisation (WHO) began to discuss epidemic staging, and all hell let loose. The ‘News’ was not interested in the fact that an epidemic doesn’t have to kill anyone, but rather that staging was an expression of its transmission and spread. They ridiculed such discussion when this clearly was no worse than seasonal flu. Now Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker, waded in and commented scathingly that the WHO was “just a UN agency”; not a lot of love lost there! What is it with the US and the UN?

I left the US not long afterwards, but continued to be amazed by the News’ feeding of prejudice and paranoia – and at times outright hatred – of its baying constituencies. Nowhere was this more evident than in Fox News’ pursuit of Obama during the last stages of the Presidential election, with it’s repeatedly asked question “Who is Barack Obama?” and its associated fear-engendering pieces. I was in the US then too!

The Flu continued to spread, and I returned to the UK where similar issues have continued to be exposed and discussed, but in a rather more scientific manner, that is until the past couple of weeks when people began to die who did not appear to have an underlying medical problem. They actually did, but it allowed for a week of speculation on mortality rates, drug resistance, availability of anti-virals, development of vaccines and criticism of the Government for lack of preparedness. However, surprise, surprise, there is a General Election next year! At least the media have been relatively objective.

I have not followed the recent US ‘News’ coverage of Flu, but would be surprised if it had changed its culture. I dislike the US ‘News’ media, but love the US, however, it is still a puzzling and foreign country. Thankfully, many of its people are less so.

The last word should go to the President, from his masterly speech to the US National Academy of Science, given on 27 April 2009 during the thick of what I describe above.

“Next, we are restoring science to its rightful place. On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation -- and our values as a nation -- are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy. It is contrary to our way of life. That's why I've charged John Holdren and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information. I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions -- and not the other way around.”

We can but live in hope!
Idle Thoughts > Infectivity, Lethality & US Media