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The Swine Flu: From Worry to Balanced Outlook

May 2, 2009

In the recent spate of bad news about the swine flu outbreak, now at level 5 on the Pandemic Scale, I have found myself more worried than usual about medical news. I’m sure some of my anxiety has to do with the word pandemic. Think bubonic plague of the mid-1300’s that claimed 25 millions lives. That sounds bad, but even worse when you consider the fact that the death toll was one-third to one-fourth of the entire human race. Then there were the 50 million people who died in the 1918-20 “Spanish” influenza pandemic. The fact that my paternal grandfather was among them changed the course of my father’s life. He was orphaned by both parents by age seven, which in some ways also changed the course of my life. Another source of worry are the ages of my sons, as this flu seems over-represented in kids and young adults. And it doesn’t help that I have close family members residing in parts of Texas, where entire school districts are being closed. Then there’s the media providing a daily bombardment of images of people wearing surgical masks. People are certainly acting as if this is a virulent strain of flu. But as I tick off the rational reasons to worry I find myself wondering, “what else do I need to know? What else do we all need to know?”

And then, an article that provides perspective finally emerges. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dr. Peter Palese, chairman of the Department of Microbiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, writes that despite the fact that the current swine flu virus belongs to the same family (H1N1) as the infamous 1918 strain, it lacks an important structure (the protein PBI-F2) present in the earlier highly lethal form. Thank you Dr. Palese. This doesn’t mean the world is out of the woods yet, but finally there is a counterpoint to the more sensationalized and catastrophic focus of the past seven days.

After reading this article I was reminded of what seems an unrelated event three decades earlier. I was a graduate student, new to Philadelphia, when the 3-Mile Island nuclear plant incident occurred. Amid days of television and print images of white clouds emerging from the nuclear units, and talk of meltdown, the balanced perspective got lost. The frightening focus on what could have occurred overwhelmed the reality of what was occurring, rendering the nearby population into a confused state, ready to head for the hills—or at least as far as you could drive away from those white clouds. Gratefully, my professor, Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy pointed out the ethical lapse in the unbalanced coverage of the incident, and helped my class calm itself.

So as this season’s flu season goes into spring, and spreads robustly, let’s be prudent, take reasonable precautions, but also keep a balanced outlook. While anything is possible, the historical and microbiological evidence suggests that catastrophe is not right around the corner.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 4, 2009 2:05 pm

    Hi, interesting post. I have been pondering this issue,so thanks for sharing. I will certainly be coming back to your site.

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