Saturday, August 29, 2009

H1N1: When the News Isn't Scary, They Just Make it Up

The World Health Organization came out with its latest overview of H1N1 on Friday. Unlike many previous reports, this one didn't take the American media by storm. I suspect that has a lot more to do with the news cycle and funeral coverage for Senator Kennedy than anything else. The report is interesting to read, because, as one would expect, it takes a global perspective. It starts with an overview of recommendations for heightened surveillance and preparedness by regions of the world, and our region is about what we've heard before.
WHO is advising countries in the northern hemisphere to prepare for a second wave of pandemic spread.

OK, so we're preparing. But what else is in this report?

Mostly, this report is an overview of where we are and what countries in the southern hemisphere have experienced during their flu season. So you might think that American blogs and news organizations, if they covered it at all, would have headlines like WHO Shares Lessons Learned on H1N1. OK, you probably don't think that, but only because you know that American writers do not cover at all what they cannot sensationalize.

From a document of 1,087 words, writers have almost unanimously seized upon the following 134:

Severe respiratory failure

Perhaps most significantly, clinicians from around the world are reporting a very severe form of disease, also in young and otherwise healthy people, which is rarely seen during seasonal influenza infections. In these patients, the virus directly infects the lung, causing severe respiratory failure. Saving these lives depends on highly specialized and demanding care in intensive care units, usually with long and costly stays.

During the winter season in the southern hemisphere, several countries have viewed the need for intensive care as the greatest burden on health services. Some cities in these countries report that nearly 15 percent of hospitalized cases have required intensive care.

Preparedness measures need to anticipate this increased demand on intensive care units, which could be overwhelmed by a sudden surge in the number of severe cases.

OK, so reasonably one could expect from this a headline that says something like WHO Urges ICU Preparedness for H1N1. After all, that is what this section of the report is about, and it is very much not about people dying from severe H1N1.

But of course not. A sampling of headlines from around the net includes:
I think it's important to reiterate here what the WHO warned about. They didn't warn about the severe form of the disease itself. They warned about the burden on the medical system. I particularly like this headline: Doctors Question WHO's Severe Swine Flu Warning: Some say while severe flu exists, warnings may be overblown. I have to ask whether it's the warnings that are overblown or the coverage of them.

In related news, a new poll shows that the public's fear about H1N1 is growing. I hardly think this is a surprise. Perhaps if the media was not so hell bent on scaring us and actually shared the facts and the correct interpretation of those facts, we might have a fighting chance of reacting rationally. Yes, we're scared. And we're still going to be scared, even without sensationalism. But if it's all the same to you bloggers and journalists out there, we really don't need their help getting more scared than we already are.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive