Publius

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Who exactly are the "swine" in the swine flu?


Having just returned from a week-long trip to Mexico (Baja), it was instructive to note the devastation caused by the recent reckless fearmongering by the media, the Mexican government, and -- not to be left out of any opportunities to mislead the American public -- the US Government.

Schools closed. Sporting events canceled. Restaurants and other public venues forced to shut down. Vacationers and business travelers by the hundreds of thousands cancel flights and hotels. You'd think it's the end of the world. By the way the media is still talking, it is the end of the world.

But aside from the sparse tourist density, it was largely business-as-usual in Mexico, if you don't count the corpses piled waist-high in the streets. Oh, sorry, that's "Shawn of the Dead". No, seriously, it was business as usual, as much as it could be.

Our flight, full with 140-150 people when we originally booked it, only had 40 souls aboard. The Mexican tourist industry, already hurting from the global economic slowdown, is in tatters. The US airline industry, also hurting from the slowdown, is being beaten black and blue. Over what? A sham, a lie, a baseless hysteria? It now seems likely.

From day 1 of this whole affair, the US Government immediately told people not to go to Mexico. In fact, weeks later, even though it is totally clear that there is nothing special at all about this flu, the US government still has a travel advisory active for all of Mexico. At no time has anyone, not the US government, not the Mexican government, and no-one in the media, provided definitive proof that the swine flu is either more deadly, or more contagious than any other flu. That being the case, where's the fire? The flames are being fanned to this day, weeks later. Why?

The level of abject unreason throughout this whole affair is staggering. I have never seen so many people fail to ask even basic questions -- by people whose job it's supposed to be to ask good questions. All news articles say is the same thing the CDC has posted for regular influenza. "Symptoms include headache, aches, fever." The CDC does not state, "symptoms are more severe". Because they're not. the CDC does not say "Much higher-than-normal fatality rate" - because there isn't.

Advising against travel to all Mexico is highly irrational, sensationalist, and utterly irresponsible. Most of the cases have been in Mexico City. To tell people not to go to Baja, is like telling them to avoid Seattle because some people in Kansas City have the flu.

There is still conflicting information about whether all 100ish of the fatalities in Mexico were actually caused by the flu, by opportunistic infections, or by something else entirely. Only 7 of the "suspected" 100+ deaths were definitively shown to have had the flu.

Seven. Worldwide hysteria and economic dislocation over seven deaths.

One possibility for why the US and US media whipped up swine flu hysteria, is a wag-the-dog hypothesis. In the heat of the swine flu "pandemic" reporting, the US House passed a $3.4 Trillion budget - with a staggering multi-Trillion dollar deficit. The White House certainly had good reason to want to distract attention away from its efforts to place the next several generations of Americans into indentured servitude.

While that is possible, there is another, simpler explanation. Bureaucrats the world over periodically need to justify their jobs.

So why does Richard Besser need to talk this way? To justify his job. His job is to keep Congress funding the CDC, and to increase that funding every year. "There's nothing to worry about" does not do that.

So why does the World Health Organization talk this way? They're hoping people will remember they exist.

So why does the media keep talking this way? The media needs to sell newspapers, and "There's nothing to worry about" does not sell newspapers. (This is, by the way, everything that's wrong with the modern media, but that's a different topic).

So why does Mexico keep thumping the drums of hysteria? Well actually, they've stopped. They would very much like things to return to normal, but are wondering why the rest of the world isn't paying attention, isn't noticing that there's nothing (particularly) wrong.

In the media, the intense hysteria was directly caused by writing such as this (highlights are mine, pointing out words that make this article a great example of sensationalist yellow journalism:)
"WASHINGTON — As the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases jumped from 45 to 64 on Tuesday, a federal health official said it's only a matter of time before the highly contagious disease claims its first American fatality.

"As we continue to investigate cases here, I expect that we will see deaths in this country," said Richard Besser , the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , during a press conference on Tuesday.

Besser's prediction reflects the growing threat posed by the mysterious swine flu virus and the inability of health officials both here and abroad to contain its spread."

--By Tony Pugh and William Douglas, McClatchy Newspapers

This is supposed to be a news article written by, you know, journalists. Yet the article is written as if it is a novel, chock full of words full of emotional content, but little fact.

"Highly contagious" is a matter of perspective. Ordinary, every-day influenza in general is highly contagious and almost always results in some fatalities - among the old, the very young, the immuno-compromised. The regular flu claims 36,000 lives a year -- in the United States alone. Link

"I expect that we will see deaths in this country". Yes, but in no higher proportion than regular influenza and in far less numbers than other maladies. There were 35000 car accident fatalities last year. You can expect people to die from lightning strikes too, and I bet if you say that without qualification or context, you can scare the crap out of people too. "Deaths by lightning strikes increase by 20%! Scientists have no explanation for mysterious increase." Something like that, isn't that scary? In 2006 there were 47 lightning fatalities, which makes this slightly more likely than being killed by a meteor strike, and significantly more likely than dying of swine flu in the United States.

As for "mysterious swine flu virus", do I even need to dignify this with a response? Do newspapers still employ editors? Or is that a dumb question since newspapers now quote blogs without fact-checking them?

I'm picking on this one article but they've all been more or less the same, with few exceptions.

I am here to tell you now, that this white man has traveled to Mexico and has returned alive. (There were 40 of us on the return flight, too, and none of them appeared to be corpses, either). I exhort you: take advantage of the extremely low airfare and hotel rates right now and enjoy our neighbor to the south. (Take sunblock. Ouch.)

It's possible, I suppose, that this flu outbreak will in fact be the next one to kill millions of people. But it seems so far at least, that this time everyone cried wolf. If we remember the fable, the next time we may all suffer for it.

The only real solution for this sort of thing, of course, is for people like you and me to 1) not automatically trust what the government or media tell us, 2) to be skillful in healthy skeptical reasoning, and 3) if someone tells you the world is about to end, whether they're a religious nut or the head of the CDC, they're probably trying to sell you something.

Many questions remain about why the media and US government are still crying wolf. What indeed is being sold and who's going to be stuck with the bill?

Publius


Additional References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_swine_flu_outbreak

Outlines serious faults with the data underlying much of the hysteria, e.g. only 7 100% confirmed deaths due to the flu in Mexico, the rest being "suspected". What does that mean? Also, no idea how many people in Mexico had the virus but "assumed high mortality rate". Probably many thousands of Mexicans have had it, got over it, didn't bother to go to the doctor in any case.

Photo from Cabo San Lucas: This measures pretty well the concern about the "swine flu" in general in Cabo.

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