Friday, February 05, 2010
MARGARET CHAN: It really is all of humanity that is under threat.
BOB GARFIELD: That was World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan back in April, assessing the H1N1 virus, a.k.a., the swine flu. The new strain of flu, said the WHO, could spread quickly, mutate lethally, eventually infect two billion people and claim countless lives worldwide. Here’s what it sounded like on TV. [SOUND OF SIREN UP AND UNDER]]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Forty-six states now reporting widespread swine flu…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Airports are on high alert for that swine flu outbreak, which is quickly spreading this morning from Mexico…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It really doesn't get more serious than that now, does it? If you inhabit Earth, you are in danger of being infected.
BOB GARFIELD: Alarms were sounded. The 1918 global flu catastrophe was invoked. Nations were mobilized, vaccines were mass-produced and administered. Billions of dollars were spent. And now, nine months later, it’s fair to say that humanity — has been spared.
GLENN NOWAK: What we saw with this virus, as it unfolded over months and months, that it didn't raise to the same level of severity as the previous influenza pandemics.
BOB GARFIELD: Glenn Nowak is a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
GLENN NOWAK: It’s easy, in hindsight, to now say that, you know, maybe those things were overstated.
BOB GARFIELD: The latest outbreak of swine flu fever came last week, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe announced an investigation into whether the World Health Organization’s dire warnings were influenced by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry who participated in the WHO’s swine flu deliberations. That investigation was prompted by complaints from epidemiologists that the WHO-ordained flu pandemic was never a true pandemic, to begin with.
WOLFGANG WODARG: In former times, “pandemic” is understood as something very extraordinary dangerous and with high mortality, high morbidity. Now we just have a normal flu and it’s called a pandemic.
BOB GARFIELD: Wolfgang Wodarg is a German politician and epidemiologist who accuses the WHO of caving to pharma by redefining the word “pandemic” to exclude any measure of severity or virulence. Though H1N1 was not especially lethal, he says, it nonetheless fulfilled the new, broader definition and thus forced health officials across the globe to mobilize, alarm the public and, of course, buy vaccine from the drug industry, all for an outbreak less deadly than most ordinary seasonal flus.
WOLFGANG WODARG: The fact is, there is a mild flu. The fact is, we spent billions of Euros and dollars for unnecessary vaccinations.
BOB GARFIELD: Or did we? First, the WHO categorically denies expanding the definition of “pandemic” for any reason other than health preparedness. Secondly, it’s impossible to know whether the less than estimated spread of the disease was largely because of mass vaccinations and other public health measures. It also bears questioning whether governments, in dealing with an unpredictable and potentially fast-mutating new virus, should be just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
DONALD McNEIL: Yeah, it would be insane to prepare for anything than the worst case. People act like this flu was nothing, it was all media hype. Eleven thousand people died.
BOB GARFIELD: Donald McNeil covers public health for The New York Times.
DONALD McNEIL: So acting as if nothing happened here and it was all media hype, I think, is wrong. Had it gone the other way, we'd have the, you know, government officials hanging from lampposts now for having failed to develop a vaccine.
BOB GARFIELD: But what about the media? What was their responsibility for evaluating the conflicting predictions from various government agencies?
ERIC KLINENBERG: What we saw initially in April and May of last year was a lot of hysterical and sensational coverage on cable television news and also on local television news.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University, specializing in the intersection of media and public health.
ERIC KLINENBERG: One of the things we learned is how difficult it is to do risk communication through the media at a time when there are so many conflicting sources of information and authority out there. Most famously, the White House Council of Scientific Advisors issued that report, estimating the possibility of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths and tens of millions of cases in the U.S. The next day, the head of the CDC expressed skepticism about that. The head of the Department of Health and Human Services essentially ignored it. And, in a context like that, it’s very difficult for journalists and for ordinary citizens to figure out what to believe.
BOB GARFIELD: Initially, he says, print publications did a very good job of reporting the outbreaks — in Mexico, for instance – and putting the data in perspective. But, as various government agencies weighed in with conflicting projections of the disease’s toll, Klinenberg believes the reporting often devolved into a typical “he said/she said” narrative.
ERIC KLINENBERG: We once lived in a world where there was a government authority that spoke with a fairly clear voice and told us what was happening when there was an emerging health problem and what we should do to stay safe. Journalists’ role during a time like that is largely to translate the government’s public health message; to ask some skeptical questions, sure, but really this is a time when journalists play their public interest role. We don't live in that world anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: No, we live in a world where the suspicion of government is so high and the pharmaceutical industry is so corrupt that the World Health Organization can't cry wolf without being suspected of shady dealings with the village merchants. We also live in a world where ideologues of all stripes interpret the lack of a media catastrophe — in public health, in climate change, in the economy — as proof that no threat ever existed. In their view, the media are willing dupes, or worse. The New York Times’ Donald McNeil, however, doesn't see it that way.
DONALD McNEIL: I think about all the reporters who spent most of their careers covering the Soviet Union and the possibility of World War III, and they may have spent 40 years doing it and World War III didn't happen. Does this mean they wasted their lives, or was the news worth covering anyway?
BOB GARFIELD: The great non-plague of 2009 might suggest a scandal, and that’s being looked into. Meantime, didn't someone once say, no news is good news?
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