Friday, May 01, 2009

The media pandemic

In the last couple of days my daily news diet has consisted of letting the morning broadcast blare in the half hour it takes me to get ready and out the door. It’s safe to say that about 20 minutes of the half hour has been about the swine flu.

The media are always looking for that next big issue to rally around; they need to cover airtime, we get it, and they’re not always blessed with a Specter defection or a Biden gaffe or the 100-day itch. Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s easier to see through this thick fog of media hype when it’s a political incident blown out of proportion, but a lot harder when the story deals with a less familiar topic – the two subjects that always come to my mind as big media nemeses are the economy (granted, the media wasn’t alone in this), and the haze that surrounds scientific or medical news stories.

In their urge to get the story out there, fast and loud, journalists don’t ensure if the hype is indeed proportional to the facts. Going by the swine flu coverage it would be hard to believe that the death rate from this flu is the same as that is to be expected from most flus, and that people who have been treated are responding to medication.

Social networking sites, for all their advantages, help feed the frenzy. Swine flu has been among the top three trending tweet topics this week. Of course, blaming Twitter for what people choose to tweet about is sort of like blaming Google for the content it spits out from all across the Web. But even so, a tweet a second about the flu doesn’t help calm down the already disproportionate furor. Including glaringly false Twitter posts like this one: “Swine Flu Confirmed Cases in Mexico is about nearly 3,000.”

Simon Jenkins makes a good point in the Guardian that the death tolls from ongoing wars or a real epidemic like AIDS – which take way more lives than the swine flu ever will – are hardly given the emphasis that a “sudden” outbreak like this one is. This goes back to the age-old media problem: information only attains the status of news when there is an “event” – usually something that is abrupt and unexpected - and when that does happen, the press focuses on the event without covering the context or big picture. Instead of going on and on about the numbers and possible escalation and inevitable doomsday, journalists could have taken this opportunity to talk about larger issues – as Erik’s post did on problems with the meat industry, livestock farming and disease.

What makes this press frenzy nearly pointless is that despite the widespread coverage of swine flu, as Jenkins notes, there are very few steps one can take to consciously reduce the chances of getting it (unless you follow Biden’s advice and lock yourself up in your house, avoiding subways and planes, and well, air).

On the other hand, there is a lot one can do to keep from getting more serious illnesses like AIDS with more difficult modes of transmission where large scale paranoia could actually drill sense into people and save lives.

I don’t intend to belittle this outbreak – of course, the swine flu is significant – it has taken over a hundred lives in Mexico, is spreading rapidly in several countries around the world, and the WHO has raised its pandemic alert level to 5. People should be made aware.

However, the simple truth is that there can’t be much of a preparedness plan against bugs that spread through aerosols and constantly change their surface structure to avoid immune responses.

Richard Besser of the CDC put it best: “microbes don’t read the plan, and you need to move away from the plan pretty soon after day one.”

Putting this in the context of incalculable risk, Ben Goldacre explains – amazingly – why it is almost impossible to assess how much of a risk this could – or could not – be. Hence, according to him people should neither be casting the swine flu as an unstoppable epidemic nor dismissing it as too much hype.

But that’s what the media does – it predicts, and innovates and foretells, be it the result of a presidential election, the length of an ongoing war, or the number of people who are going to die from swine flu.

Where predictions should have been happening is in the scientific community. As this New Scientist article explains, North American pigs have been incubators for these flu viruses for years, and scientists should have seen it coming. Since the late ’90s, the viruses have been evolving by mixing with different strains of human and bird flu viruses, which have made them more virulent. Since its genetic makeup is so novel, it is harder for the human system to target an immune response to.

There is a very real fear that this flu could become a pandemic considering its ease of transmission. But there is also a possibility that this virus - like many viruses before it - may peter out because it may not be able to survive and spread in humans.

No one knows. The media should not be pretending that it does.