This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.
The Seattle area now claims at least 11 cases of the swine flu. Schools are closing. One little sidebar comment interests me. These cases aren't "official" until they get the report back from the CDC. That won't be for another 48 hours. Meanwhile, let's panic the public.
Well, this current epidemic has all the hallmarks of a potential nasty pandemic - recently transferred from animals, now transferring from person-to-person (which we didn't see with the last animal flu scare), subtype with low general population resistance due to lack of exposure, and a very very high death rate by comparison with the ~1% we expect from most influenza epidemics.
It's highly sensible to be alert, it's sensible to take some measures to retard its spread through the global population (because this buys time with which to develop a vaccine), even though the probability of this particular one being the next multi-million-killing pandemic is low. One of these days, one of these influenzae will get us. I'd rather exercise some level of caution than none.
While I don't mind a little alertness, I am still humored by the level of reporting. Once again, fully half the morning broadcast has been filled with stories about swine flu. Yes, many of them have been about how the outbreak hasn't been overwhelming. They are trying to open up schools early.
The problem for the media is that they get caught up in their own positive feedback loops.
Ok, some people have now died here in the US. They have been explicit in pointing out that the reason they died was because of other factors involved (CHF and other illnesses), and they augment the stories with people making sensible statements, but they are still covering the story with used car salesman like vigor.
My initial assessment of "no deaths" was a little extreme, but the fundamental message I was trying to get across still holds. Flu is dangerous. This particular flu doesn't appear to be more dangerous than the regular flu.
Based on the stats so far, this strain is less harmful than the multitude of other influenza strains that have come and gone in the past. Now remind me again what is the current population of the earth? Circa 6 billion? How many of the earth's population are infected by potentially deadly diseases at any one time? How many people are killed by malaria every day?
It never ceases to amaze me how these scares are allowed to develop to the point of mass hysteria and I've read Christopher Booker and Richard North's book 'Scared to Death' cover to cover so I understand the 'seven basic attributes' of a good scare. This latest 'scare them to death' episode is sadly consistent with the second paragraph of the Introduction to this great book '...passive smoking; asbestos; SARS; Asian bird flu - the list is seemingly endless'. How right they are!
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
"The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”