Are We Dead Yet?

by DavalosMcCormack on May 4, 2009

Every day in America 18 people die waiting for an organ transplant. Every year more than 200,000 Americans get the regular flu and more than 36,000 die from the disease and its complications; and more than 28,000 infants die before they reach their first birthday – an infant mortality rate that leaves the U.S. tied with Slovakia and Poland and only marginally ahead of Puerto Rico and Chile.

When was the last time you read about any of those threats to our national health? When was the last time you saw a sense of urgency in the media in reporting those statistics? When was the last time you heard an interview with an outraged or concerned public health expert about those deaths and why they were unacceptable?

Yeah, me too. I can’t remember the last time.

But in just the past few weeks it has been impossible to turn on the TV or radio or pick up a newspaper without being assaulted with fear and a sense of impending doom over the swine flu.

In the San Francisco Examiner, before a single case was detected in the City, there was a headline that screamed “Swine Flu Heading Our Way”. How did they know? Did someone see it buying a bus ticket in San Diego to San Francisco? Was it spotted hitch hiking along highway 280 heading towards the Bay Area?

And of course the banner headline was accompanied by the ubiquitous picture of people wearing face masks – a photo that could have been taken anywhere in the world and probably was because it certainly didn’t look like it was taken in San Francisco.

Inside the paper the actual article was much more moderate and nuanced, quoting public health officials as saying it was almost inevitable that the virus would be detected here at some point and that health officials were prepared. However,  by the time you got to that your sense of impending doom was already so high you probably missed their attempts to add an element of balance to the coverage.

Sadly that’s been all too typical of the media treatment of the swine flu. Heavy on the drama, light on the perspective. And when there was nothing new on the swine flu to report, no new cases locally, they simply switched to international coverage to focus on the fact that now three people in Germany had it, and that one person in Switzerland, Austria and Holland were also infected.

One person! Since when was it news that one person in a country half the world away had a disease! What next, “Good evening, breaking news out of Turkey where Bulent Acipgal has come down with a nasty head cold – we go live now to our reporter in Ankara with the latest. How bad is the cold Dave?”

When the media delivers a message of fear and fails to give a sense of perspective it’s not surprising that the public adopt a similar sense of, what a friend of mine called, panicdemic.

For example at one hospital near San Francisco, staff were issuing masks to friends/family visiting patients. One woman came in and asked if she could have some to take home to her family, when she was told they were for hospital visitors only the woman grabbed the entire box and ran out.

How desperate, not to say deluded, do you have to be to do something like that; to steal what you think is a vital life-saving device, not caring that you were denying protection to others just to ensure your family was safe from the swine flu.

The only bright note is that the masks really aren’t that effective against the virus anyway!

And while reporters roam the streets looking for more people to ask how scared they feel about the swine flu, the real stories get ignored. And so more people die waiting for a transplant because there are not enough organ donors, and more infants die because we don’t offer every woman in the country pre-natal care, which would help protect the health of the mother and baby.

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