FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Spreading Hysteria About Swine Flu "Hysteria"

by STEPHEN SOLDZ

Public health is bedeviled by the public’s lack of understanding of uncertainty. Public health policy deals with potential future events. Decisions about policy have to be made with often inadequate data. If, as often happens, bad scenarios don’t unfold, policy-makers may well have made make decisions that turn out to be wrong in the sense that the preventive efforts were taken that turned out not to be needed.

We see this in the case of the current H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Skeptics are using the initial concerns about worst case scenarios, which turned out to be wrong when more data was available, to encourage skepticism about current plans to cope with a looming pandemic.

We see this reasoning in a recent Alternet article by Joshua Holland —  H1N1 Just Isn’t That Scary: Why There’s No Reason to Go Overboard with Swine Flu Hysteria — which claims that swine flu fears are more dangerous than the swine flu itself. [Holland’s article received a furious rebuttal — More crappy flu journalism, this time Alternet — from revere at Effect Measure with which I strongly concur. My comments complement revere’s.]

Holland refers to comments last spring abut the potential danger:

In April, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano called a press conference and declared a public-health emergency. In August, officials for the Centers for Disease Control warned that H1N1 could infect half of the U.S. population and kill 90,000 Americans by year’s end. CDC officials estimated that 1 in 10 New Yorkers had contracted the virus this spring.

Holland refers to these estimates as “grist for their [the media’s] sensationalist mills.” He, however, makes no argument that the data available in spring 2009 were not consistent with these warnings. We had a highly contagious, fast-spreading pandemic flu strain to which no one under 52 had any apparent immunity. Those most affected by the pandemic were the young. We had reports of  many deaths in Mexico, and we had the awareness that influenza has the ability to rapidly mutate. There were a number of  deaths of young patients, which is atypical for the seasonal flu.

To not take action, issue warnings, consider school closings, and start a vaccine development program would have been highly negligent. Had the pandemic developed differently, as could well have occurred, likely, many of the same people now criticizing the “hysteria” would soon be screaming at the incompetence or corruption of a public health policy establishment that failed to respond to a looming crisis.

In any case, Holland and similar writers fail to understand that, even with the relatively low severity of the swine flu at this point, the overall risk is greater because of the lack of immunity in the population. Thus, a much larger percentage of the population is likely be become infected. If even a small proportion of the infected become very ill and require hospitalization, our emergency medical system, already operating under great continuous strain, will face much greater strain. Large numbers of severely ill people may be turned away from ERs, to take their chances at home. Revere explains the problem:

Our big city emergency rooms periodically and routinely go “on diversion,” meaning that they divert the ambulance that’s on its way their hospital to another hospital. The main reason is not the already ludicrous long waits in the ER but the shortage of critical care beds, the ones with the ventilators and skilled nursing that Holland thinks will now save people seriously ill with flu. It’s a common mistake. But it’s a mistake.

In a healthcare system from which most excess capacity has been wrung by budget cuts, even a mild pandemic can cause severe disruption. If the vaccination program only avoided this eventuality, it would be worth it, contra Holland. But, like the seasonal flu vaccine it is likely to reduce many forms of illness-caused social disruption and save lives. Likely thousands. Possibly many more.

Holland, however, recommends that the non-health professionals among us just ignore swine flu:

The take-away from all this is that the best cure for swine flu hysteria may be a healthy dose of salt….

Public-health officials, epidemiologists and clinicians have to worry about H1N1. As things stand, you really don’t.

In these statements Holland uses the common commentator’s trick to pose the options as “hysteria” or forgetting about it, as if those are the only options. Of course, hysteria is never useful. But cautious alertness often is.
Additionally, public health policy to deal with a situation like the swine flu pandemic requires the allocation of public resources and the development of plans and the carrying out of preparatory measures by many in a multitude of systems throughout society. Both resource allocation and preparedness planning cannot be carried out without public involvement and an informed citizenry.

Holland, however, fails the primary task of both journalists and the public heath community of helping people understand the uncertainties and complexities of the situation, developing preparations for potential bad scenarios,  and helping people cope, no matter how events unfold. Accurate knowledge and understanding, including knowledge of uncertainties and limits to our information, are among the most effective public heath tools. Unfortunately, Holland’s article is no help in developing these tools.

STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].

 

 

STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail