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PRUDEN: A pandemic of panic — are we dead yet?

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

We were all supposed to be in the graveyard by now, done in by AIDS, SARS, bird flu, poisoned peanut butter, Hong Kong flu, killer tomatoes, global warming and strangulation by kudzu. But here we are, proof that there really is life after death.

Now we learn that we might freeze before the pigs get us. (The chickens failed.) NASA scientists have observed that the solar wind is the weakest since we began keeping such records, that the magnetic axis of the sun is tilted to an unusual degree, and Ol' Sol is the quietest he has been in a century. A chill, say the solar scientists, may be on the way. (Or not.) Worse, says one of them, this could compel reappraisal of the science of global warning. Try as he might, poor old Al Gore just can't keep the cosmos in line.

But this week Ol' Sol has been put in the shade by a new panic du jour. The cable-TV networks and the Internet are bubbling with sunspots, even if the sun isn't. Sample these latest headlines from the Drudge Report: "Two flu cases confirmed in Scotland. Has globalization made us more catastrophe-prone? Swine flu sweeps the globe. Swine flu closes football stadiums. The world must work together against this threat."

We haven't seen a panic quite like this one since the last one. SARS was once thought to be the ultimate panic, though the longest running panic was the AIDS scare, when big media set out to convince us that "now we are all at risk." SARS was never a threat in the United States, and worth the P-word only in China and even there a risk confined mostly to people who sleep with their chickens. You can step in all manner of unpleasant things in a chicken house. AIDS continues to be a succession of personal tragedies, but it has lost its power to terrorize continents. Worse, it lost its media cachet. Besides, nobody at the New York Times or at CNN wants to credit George W. Bush with anything good, or even acknowledge how he has become a hero in Africa for the American campaign against AIDS in Africa that has saved millions of lives.

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But here we go again. The World Health Organization is heroically feeding the hysteria with the warning on front pages across the globe and trumpeted by hundreds of television talking heads: "The World Health Organization has warned that the [swine flu] virus has the potential to become a pandemic." The words "flu" and "pandemic" are such powerful scare words that almost nobody notices the accompanying weasel words "may," "could," "might," "potentially" and "possibly" that would stand out in bright red and green neon to the skeptical eye of a wizened old city editor. Alas, most of the wizened old city editors really are in the graveyard, having succumbed more to world-weariness than to fashionable diseases. The director of the World Influenza Center in London says of the outbreak, such as it is so far: "It's difficult to look on the bright side."

No, it's actually not difficult. About 2,000 persons in Mexico are down with flu, and about 150 have died. That's a mortality rate of about 7 percent. Sad, even tragic, but not exactly the most lethal flu virus we've ever seen. There's no mortality rate in the United States because no one has died. Only a few, very few, cases have been reported, and nearly all are described as "mild." You have to give the medical bureaucrats and the media credit for chutzpah to think they can keep such thin soup on the panic menu.

There are no firm estimates or even hopeful guesses of how many Americans are likely to contract flu this spring, but fortunately the ratio of panic to reality is not governed by facts. In the early hours of counting, barely 50 cases had been reported in the United States, and only two in Britain - that's 2, not 2,000 or even 200. About 300,000 to 500,000 cases of flu are reported every year in the United States, where 10 percent to 20 percent of the population comes down with the sore throat, coughing and achy bones of flu. Of those, 30,000 to 40,000 die. What we have so far in the United States is a 50-case panic, caused by a remarkably mild variant of the flu.

The medical researchers say it might mutate. Or it might not. If it does, it might, possibly, maybe, potentially be the worst killer since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Or it might not. Researchers are working on the vaccine, and the media is working on the panic. We may not get a vaccine, but soon there won't be a dry pair of pants on six continents.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.