April 30, 2009

It's OK To Talk About The Flu

I want to say a few words about "panic," because the swine flu discussion sweeping teh intarwebs has already passed the annoying stage for many people. My observations:

People are reacting on-line the same way they react to anything unknown. There's fear, curiosity, annoyance, an attempt to share facts, expressions of frustration, joking, etc. There's information and misinformation. It's especially evident on Twitter, where people say what's on their mind pretty freely.

You're going to read a lot of stupid comments. But don't mistake everything you read about the flu for "freaking out" or "panicking." Our lines of communication are there to both spread information and express our emotions. People need those outlets to help them not panic. React to them with calm, with information and with humor. (Do you have swine flu? Try this diagnostic link.)

There are legitimate concerns, just like with the regular flu. Its up to calm people to fill in knowledge gaps. Tell people about the CDC recommendations.

The country has survived worse freaking out than what you're seeing now. I remember after 9/11 there were many people who were seriously worried that another terrorist attack was imminent, and that their lives were in immediate danger. Those fears were unfounded. Even so, I got some people seriously annoyed when I pointed out how unlikely you were, personally, to die in a terrorist attack. it was very threatening to people to have their concern challenged. Yet it was overblown.

That's why I see the public current swine flu response as actually being pretty mild, especially when you compare it to the acute terrorism panic which lasted years before ebbing to a reasonable level. Look at these statistics:

Number of Vehicular Deaths in the United States in 2008: 37,313
Average Annual Number of U.S. Deaths Attributed to Influenza: 36,000

How many people have died from terrorism in the North America between 1968 and 2006? 3,227. That's not per year, that's the total.

If you can, try to remember back to the concern over terrorism between 2001 and 2003. People were a freaking out. It certainly looks like, taken in general, people have much more founded concern in influenza (in general, not simply H1N1 flu in particular).

I am concerned about influenza. I have a number of friends and close family members with immune system issues and illnesses. I worry that they might be exposed to influenza and have relapses or complications. This is a reasonable concern, and it makes me think about reasonable precautions. Similarly, I take reasonable precautions when I drive because the statistics warrant such precautions.

In life, people are often worried about the wrong things. If you've holed up in a bunker and taped the door shut, you've overreacted to the swine flu. If you've voiced concern, you've got a ways to go before you're as "freaked out" as so many people were after 9/11.

Posted by James at April 30, 2009 3:52 PM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Well said. I'm working on a post with a similar stance and tone. I don't feel like people are panicked so much as they are being informed.

Posted by: briwei at May 1, 2009 11:13 AM

If you look at the response right now, people have pretty much realized what a reasonable level of concern s about this.

Panic doesn't worry me right now. These things tend to be weakest in the summer. I am a little concerned that, if this follows the pattern of previous flu outbreaks, there will be too little concern in the fall when flu season really hits.

Posted by: James at May 1, 2009 11:42 AM

I think a lot of what makes people "freak out" is a perception of lack of control. I was reading about people driving and using their cell phones. If somebody else is doing it, they're endangering lives. If *you're* doing it, everything's under control. We all think we have superhuman capabilities in certain situations. (A generalization, of course, I'm not referring to anyone in particular.)

With a terrorist attack and with a disease outbreak, we perceive we have no control and we seek to gain that control. In my opinion. I think that grasping for control has given us much evil (religion and the war in Iraq leap to mind).

Posted by: Maggie at May 3, 2009 11:18 AM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved