It is about time we face reality and realize that H1N1, more commonly called swine flu, is not a big deal. So, before we smear ourselves with hand sanitizers, don our surgical masks, and detain ourselves in our rooms, let’s go over a few things. In the midst of this chaos, we are in dire need of nothing other than a little perspective.
I am not saying that that the precautions we are taking for swine flu are unnecessary, but perhaps they are a bit exaggerated. Yes, swine flu is an epidemic and yes, tragically, it has killed many people, but in no way is it worth all the hysteria that it has received. The seasonal flu kills close to 40,000 people in the U.S. each year. So far the death toll for swine flu is about 4,000. So why fret over something that is ten times less deadly than the seasonal cough and sniffles?
If there were to be a villain in this affair, I would say it is the media. In his book, Language of the News, Robert Fowler claims that any news is inherently biased. Some media sources use certain terms to make the audience uncomfortable (Fowler 1991). Constantly the news bombards us with words like plague, panic, attack, etc. in reference to swine flu. I am sure we all remember the similar bird flu scare from a few years ago and the eerily similar hysteria and the media firestorm that came with it. That flu killed 114 people over nine years, but the headlines did not cease to regularly warn us of a gigantic worldwide pandemic.
We must also remember the role pharmaceutical companies play in this healthcare drama. If you turn on the television, and wait for the commercials, you will quickly note the numerous advertisements for various medications. Media is far from a foreign domain for them. During the past months, multinational companies have seen a rise in stock value; for example, Johnson & Johnson, makers of Purell hand sanitizer, has seen a rise in stock of 49% (Shabazz 2009). In this economy, this is a big deal and these corporations know it. In the British Medical Journal this is referred to as “disease mongering.” Alliances are formed between pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and the media to create a social phobia; this not only shapes medical ideology of the public, but also indirectly shapes the consumer ideology (Heath, Henry, and Moynihan 2002). As these companies race ahead to provide vaccines for the public, it is hard to tell whether this is because of a craving for wealth or compassion for humanity.
Another point to note is that regular flu usually kills the vulnerable ones of our society- the old, the very young, and the sick and susceptible. However, you may have heard that swine flu has discriminated no one including the youth; in other words, people in our society at the pinnacle of health have been affected. This contrasts other viruses such as the Hong Kong flu that killed more than one million people in 1968. But unlike the swine flu whose most virulent effects so far have occurred among young adults, the Hong Kong flu killed mainly those over 65 years of age (Goldman and Lewis 2009). CDC experts say that in the seasonal flu, there tends to be predominance of burden to the elderly and the very young, but in the case of the swine flu, more cases involve the younger population. However, there is not enough information to statistically prove this conjecture (Allday 2009).
So, is there true danger lurking behind this epidemic? Well, first we need to stop looking through a glass coated with media and business hype. Then, with a change in perspective, the facts tell us that danger is deterred for now even though the media insists otherwise.
Goldman, Linda. Lewis, Joan. “Swine flu: containing the virus. Occupational Health 61. 7 (2009), http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=43205258&site=ehost-live. (accessed October 4, 2009).
Fowler, Roger. Language in the News. London: Routledge, 1991.
Shabazz, Saeed. “Pharmaceutical Companies Stand to Make Profit From ‘Swine Flu’New American Media (2009), http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=38fadb7a58ef4addc245a451e474b8a1. (accessed October 4, 2009).
Heath, Iona. Henry, David. Moynihan, Ray. “Selling sickness: the pharmaceutical industry and disease mongering.” British Medical Journal, no. 324 (2002)
Allday, Erin. “Swine flu hits youth the hardest.” San Francisco Chronicle. 7 May 2009