Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Global hysteria over swine flu reminds that the cure is often worse than the disease.

As the swine-flu death toll rose to 152 in Mexico Tuesday, the world was stricken with terror. News shows considered a worldwide epidemic with millions of predicted deaths. The Associated Press referred to Mexico as “the epicenter of the outbreak” - making it sound as if a nuclear bomb had gone off. Tuesday’s Washington Post warned, “Outbreak threatens global recovery.” The Drudge Report’s banner headline cried out: “COUGH FEAR!”

Some perspective is needed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seasonal flu infects 28 million to 56 million Americans each year. Of these, 100,000 are hospitalized and about 36,000 die. This averages out to almost 150 deaths a day during the eight months of a normal flu season.

Watching the melodramatic news, no one would know that there have been swine-flu outbreaks with similar strains in the past. A 1976 flu fear was highlighted by a botched government scramble to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. Only one person, an Army recruit at Fort Dix, N.J., was killed by the flu, but more people were harmed by the vaccine. Possibly hundreds got Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing neurological illness. About 25 percent of the country was vaccinated before the undertaking was canceled because of safety concerns.

Infectious disease kills a lot more people in underdeveloped countries such as Mexico than in developed societies because poorer conditions are conducive to spreading. Scaremongers point to the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, which left a half million Americans dead, but it is important to remember that health care and living standards were much worse back then. People lived in crowded conditions and often were suffering from other diseases, such as tuberculosis. There were no antibiotics or anti-viral medications. Flu kills primarily through secondary infections - bacterial infections, such as pneumonia. Today, the elderly and other vulnerable groups have greater resistance against bacterial pneumonia because of vaccinations.

The public constantly is assaulted by exaggerated pandemic predictions. Just a few years ago, Congress debated whether 2.5 percent of the federal budget should be spent to protect us from bird flu. We were told that Ebola and AIDS both threatened the human race. Governments - both foreign and domestic - take advantage of hysteria to push policies and programs they favor anyway. Despite confirmed cases of swine flu in Spain and the United Kingdom, the European Union issued a warning against travel to America. At least six countries have banned the import of meat and pork products from parts of the United States. Bureaucratic solutions are always more harmful to the public than disease.

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