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Three Cheers for Pandemic Panic?

By Michael Fumento

The usually reasonable Washington Post and Slate columnist Anne Applebaum has gone hysterical over the swine flu hysteria.

"Where infectious diseases are concerned, panic is good. Panic is what we want," she writes. "Without panic, nothing happens. Up to 500 million people will get malaria this year, and more than 1 million of them will die, mostly in very poor countries. Yet there is no fear of malaria in the rich world; there is no hysterical media coverage, and thus there is still no satisfactory prevention or cure."

The reason malaria has always been shortchanged is precisely because of contagious disease panic - other contagious diseases. Many years ago I was writing that AIDS hysteria was draining off fantastic sums of money from both malaria and tuberculosis. There will never be a panic over malaria and TB, hence those diseases will never get the kind of funding they would in a sane world.

Apple also uses the last refuge of the contagious disease panic-monger, that the virus may not be bad in its present form but it could change to be worse. With that attitude, nobody should ever get married because. After all, your would-be spouse may be the greatest human being on the planet now but develop a really nasty personality over time.

Swine flu is no more likely to mutate into a more contagious or severe form than is any of the numerous strains of seasonal flu that go around every year. Why don't we just have an annual flu panic every November?

Applebaum concludes by praising that "brief, possibly ludicrous but nevertheless useful moment of mass hysteria that brought us such terrific headlines over the past couple of weeks."

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, there was never a good hysteria or bad period of rationality. Panics are psychologically costly, economically costly, and can induce complacency when a real problem comes along. They often lead to the seeking out and punishment of scapegoats. Even today, in some countries, "witches" and "sorcerers" are burned.

One particular aspect of this panic has been the overrunning of hospitals, in which the truly ill are forced to wait behind the worried well who have a sniffle, some coughing, and the occasional desire to oink. Here are excerpts from an e-mail I received today.

I am a nurse at an emergency room in central Texas. The week of April 26 through May 2 was the busiest week for our ER, ever. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday were the top four days on record for individual visits at our facility. Almost all of the excess business was due to people who thought they had flu. On Thursday, we saw 372 patients; more than double the normal load for an April 30th. Number of positive flu tests: 12. Number of positive swine flu tests: 0. Number of positive swine flu tests in our county (so far): 1 . . . The economic consequences are undeniable.

He goes on:

If the media is either directly or indirectly encouraging people to go to the ER, they are actually causing them to be exposed to more virulent diseases. On April 30, about 200 people came into our ER because they thought they had flu. 12 actually did; 188 had colds, allergies, or were not sick at all Meanwhile, they exposed themselves to people who had some really infectious conditions.

"I saw people with MRSA, Streptococcus, Pertussis, C. difficile, conjunctivitis, impetigo, scabies, and flu,” he says, with the worried well sitting among them for three hours. If the media even notice, I doubt the sudden uptick in disease will be tied to the swine flu hysteria."

Joseph Feather
Round Rock, TX.

I don't doubt that he's right.

May 12, 2009 05:53 PM  ·  Diseases (other than AIDS and cancer)