Flying the flu

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag () - May 4, 2009 - 12:00am

From the first time it was reported on April 2, the flu epidemic that is threatening to become a pandemic (the World Health Organization says we are now at level 5, a step short of a pandemic declaration) has been relentlessly reported in media.

Every minute of our waking hours, we are bombarded by news of the epidemic, to the point that it has become some sort of a self-sustaining epidemic of its own: Like a virus, news prompts governments into action that becomes news once more, to which governments react again.

It is not that we do not need to know. Of course we do. But how truly desperate or threatening has the situation really become that it now seems necessary to scare the people of the world to the brink of madness?

Has the media been fair and accurate not only in its assessment of the situation but, more importantly, in its assessment of its own responsibility as channel of information? Has the media not compromised the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, with its relentless coverage?

Let us examine a few unassailable facts. As of this writing, the number of people infected with the H1N1 virus (even the name of the flu got a little off the rack in initial media reports, but we will get to that later) was 615 people in 15 countries.

True the number was almost double the figure reported the day before, which was 367. But to put that into context, we need to remind ourselves that the figure harks back an entire month to April 2 when the outbreak was first reported in Mexico.

Now, consider these figures that have the global media all het up to available figures concerning the common seasonal flu. According to these available figures, the common seasonal flu kills an average of between 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide.

Using the maximum average of 500,000 deaths due to the common seasonal flu we can derive an even more alarming picture of 41,666 deaths in a month (compare that with the 615 infected, not dead, from April 2 to May 2 of out current flu). That is 1,369 dead in a day.

But what is the common seasonal flu? Why, it is that illness that you and I almost habitually get every time the cold season kicks in, starting with a sniffle or a sneeze and degenerating into a cough with fever.

This is not to belittle the common seasonal flu. It kills up to 500,000 worldwide each year, remember? But that is precisely the point. Why is not the global media jumping up and down over such virulence and force politician-led governments to react like they do to H1N1?

Now let us move on to the village where this current scare started, to the town of La Gloria (why did it have to have the same name as the much reviled Philippine president, I do not know) in Mexico, where the first case, “patient zero,” resides.

Patient zero (the term used by, who else, but the media) is a five-year-old boy named Edgar Hernandez. Lab tests showed he was the only one who contracted the H1N1 virus from among several who contracted only the common seasonal flu.

But from La Gloria, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, the virus spread, first across the country and then to other countries. The media quickly picked it up from that scenario with such virulence that governments were driven to actions that sometimes were incomprehensible.

In Egypt, for instance, the government ordered the slaughter of all pigs it could lay its eyes on. And in the United States, Vice President Joe Biden spread another kind of virus, the virus of fear, when without sufficient basis he warned people to avoid all public places.

But back in the village where it all started, in La Gloria, Mexico where pig farms lie on either side of its dusty main dirt road, “patient zero” Edgar Hernandez is back playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. He claims ice cream helped cure him.

We do not know about that claim, especially coming as it does from a five-year-old boy. But the fact that he is now enjoying ice cream in-between playing among the pig farms in La Gloria ought to deserve at least some mention in media. And I am doing that now.

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