Swine flu, or whatever we call it now, has been disappointing in its inability, despite all the build-up, to amount to much at all. Luckily, past epidemic let-downs (SARs, the avian flu, mad cow, LinkedIn) have cushioned the blow, but not before some really silly things happened:
Egypt ordered a country-wide inspection of its 400,000 pigs, despite their inability to transmit the disease. Russia banned pork, but only from Spain and Canada. And Vice President Joe Biden avoided planes and subways.
While any deaths are regrettable, so is creating a panic via false alarm: the avian flu killed 257 people in 2005 and SARs killed 774 in 2002. Mad cow outbreaks were expected to kill at least half a million Englishmen; about 150 actually got sick. To put things in perspective, the old-fashioned flu kills almost 30,000 Americans every year.
Our health professionals should know better than to yell “Fire!” in a movie theatre. They should also, as health professionals, know that their panicky references to influenza outbreaks of years past, notably the Spanish Flu, are ill-founded: the Spanish Flu was born into a perfect storm of circumstances. World War I’s Western Front was not “all quiet” with respect to germs, and became a flu laboratory. Add to that thousands of men crowded around both sides of a 400-mile long military line, dirty, starved, and exhausted, and it’s easy to see how a flu can be born and spread, especially when those infected men start getting shipped back home by the boatload.
Luckily, we no longer believe mustard baths kill the flu. Nor do we have conditions anywhere in which so many men are packed so closely together, for so long a time, as the Western Front.
What we have instead is a new perfect storm, made of a non-discerning public, alarmist researchers, sensationalist journalists, and a slow news day, perfect for breeding a new infectious disease: irrational outbreaks of hysteria.