Swine flu panic just hogwash

Last updated 11:57 27/04/2009

Swine flu? Oh for goodness' sake. What a load of hogwash.

OK, it's slightly off-topic for a politics blog but allow me a little latitude. It's a wet Monday morning, and there's not much else going on.

Which I guess is the point. The breathless reporting of this "outbreak'' of "international concern'' that has "shut down Mexico City'' and "could lead to the closure of Auckland International Airport'' is occurring because of an absence of any real news.

How many times are we going to cry wolf over these things? Remember bird flu? The rush to stock up on Tamiflu? Gee didn't the Swiss drug maker Roche do well out of that one.

Sars anyone? The Millennium Bug? Let's face it, we love a good crisis and the media enjoys it more than anyone. Scaring the pants off the public is great fun, and sells newspapers.

So let's just get this latest crisis straight. "Up to'' 80 people have died in Mexico from a variant of Influenza A, which is being dubbed swine flu. A bunch of Americans and Canadians are thought to have caught it, though none of them have died or are even very sick.

Ten Kiwi kids apparently have the "deadly new swine flu'' after a school trip to Mexico recently. So far they're all OK too.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that influenza isn't a nasty virus. Or that health authorities shouldn't take precautions until we know more about it.

But let's have some perspective, shall we? Every year, the flu kills an estimated 500,000 people around the world. There are up to five million cases. People die and are hospitalised right here in New Zealand from the flu every year as well.

Rolling out special news bulletins like TV3 did last night should be reserved for genuinely grave news - not some worldwide media beat-up.

Praise so far to our Health Minister Tony Ryall, who has adopted a low-key approach and resisted the temptation to press the panic button and start issuing Tamiflu and dust masks.

Mind you, a good health scare could be just what the doctor ordered for the Government. It takes our minds off the start of winter, the state of the economy, job losses, and the fact that the Government doesn't actually seem to be doing very much at the moment.    

Of course, the real problem is that should a genuine health emergency ever arise we'll all be so sick of the false alarms we'll probably ignore it.

Which is what we should do with this one, beyond taking the usual precautions such as handwashing and not sneezing on people and getting your winter flu jab. And perhaps TV3 will put some context into tonight's bulletin, including the number of deaths from regular everyday boring flu that just kills infants and the elderly.

Is that a pig flying past my window?

Post a comment
Allan   #1   12:16 pm Apr 27 2009

Even the 80 deaths is over-stated: 12 confirmed deaths from the flu in Mexico so far. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10568808

Alan Wilkinson   #2   12:17 pm Apr 27 2009

"Praise so far to our Health Minister Tony Ryall, who has adopted a low-key approach and resisted the temptation to press the panic button and start issuing Tamiflu and dust masks."


"Tamiflu has been released from Middlemore Hospital to the Auckland Regional Public Health Service to treat patients and those who have had contact with them. ...

David Boyens, of Mairangi Bay, told the Herald last night he was relieved that tests on his 16-year-old twins Thomas and Anja, who went on the trip, had put them in the clear.

But because swine flu could not yet be ruled out for the whole group, health officials had told them to act as if they had been exposed. They would be given Tamiflu and were in home isolation."

Joji   #3   12:21 pm Apr 27 2009

Good name for an olde English pub, "The Sneezing Pig"...

Mars   #4   12:41 pm Apr 27 2009

"Let's face it, we love a good crisis and the media enjoys it more than anyone. Scaring the pants off the public is great fun, and sells newspapers."

God, I wish there were more media people able to freely admit to this. Big ups to you, Mr Espiner, for actually telling it like it is!

Teddie   #5   12:42 pm Apr 27 2009

The media applies the same ratings based sensationalist approach to anything that moves, that is why we have media beat ups on celebrities and politicians that are blown up out of all proportion. Perhaps Shaun Plunket could lead the way and refuse to report such obvious media beat ups...ha ha...Even though there are some intelligent people working in the media I suspect they can't rebel too much for fear of losing their jobs. What about the 5000!!! people that die every year in NZ from smoking related disease?

Chart   #6   12:50 pm Apr 27 2009

Now up to 26 confirmed dead in Mexico. Read the history of 1918 Spanish flu. Haskell KS. people dying as Mexico. Then the flu goes mild, spreading throughout globe, and comes back in about 100 days as the true pandemic killer. Will this thing reassort as it did in 1918?

Bob   #7   12:56 pm Apr 27 2009

"Scaring the pants off the public is great fun, and sells newspapers."

And, I might add, it makes a good blog topic.

I agree that the media is cashing in on what so far is very small potatoes as public health concerns go. But having lived among SARS for however many months it was in our community, I'd like to point out that the govt. must tread a very fine line here. SARS started slowly, and it was contained, apparently, in Vietnam, China, and HK, with very few cases. Nobody took it very seriously.

But when something like SARS hits your community, let me tell you it's very unsettling. Not so much the fear of getting it, rather the extent to which it disrupts society. And this gets back to your point. To what extent must the govt. disrupt society in order to protect it? The answer is nobody knows in this case because nobody can say how bad this will become. One thing is for sure though, if it does become bad without world govts. ringing alarm bells, then people, like yourself perhaps, will blame the govt. for NOT calling alarm to this threat early on, as people in Mexico are with regards to their govt.

SARS could have been better contained had more people taken simple precautions like hand washing early on. The fact is, unless somebody lights a fire under most people butts, they tend to do nothing.

So, I agree with you to an extent, but only to the extent that this virus goes nowhere. If it blows up, I suspect you'll recant.

K   #8   12:57 pm Apr 27 2009

Amen, baby

Scott C   #9   01:00 pm Apr 27 2009

I guess beat-up media stories are good for everyone to get some milage out of eh?

Dave T   #10   01:02 pm Apr 27 2009

Travelled to and from Asia during SARS and still alive I think.

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