Swine Panic

bacon1If you have not been in a coma for the past week, then you cannot have failed to notice how our society has gone temporarily insane over the H1N1 influenza A virus or “swine flu.”  In fact, the World Health Organization stopped using the term swine flu last week because it was confusing the public about the safety of pork. However, this failed to stop the completely unnecessary slaughter of pigs by the Egyptian authorities despite the fact that a) there were no cases of the virus in Egypt and b) it is not contracted from pigs. Just as well that there was not a similar panic about “German measles.”

We might scoff at the Egyptians but already, we in the West are over-reacting to anyone sporting a sombrero, eating Mexican food or looking slightly too sun-tanned for this time of year. And already the conspiracy theorists are sharpening up their knives. Last week, as the swine fever story was breaking, I did a radio interview with Jon Grayson on the Overnight America show. As I waited to do my piece, I listened to the phone-in calls from insomniacs commenting on the Mexican outbreak. It was remarkable how the outbreak was interpreted as various conspiracies from a) illegal Mexican immigrants, b) drug companies who make the vaccine, c) companies who make face masks and of course that old favourite d) the US military.

Influenza kills people. Nothing has changed. All that has changed is the media hysteria and misguided attempts of the Government to issue appropriate information. Today, in the UK, we are going to receive guidelines about not sneezing directly into other peoples’ faces and washing our hands after touching elevator buttons (direct reference to the avian flu outbreak). I understand the makers of alcohol hand wipes should do nicely out of this and are rubbing their hands together (as they hope we will).

At the moment the H1N1 virus is no more dangerous than other influenza strains. But if we start dishing out anti-viral treatments like “Tamiflu” to otherwise completely healthy individuals because of the panic, then there is a real danger that our anti-viral treatments will lead to viral resistance in the same way that the over-prescription of anti-biotics have created multi-resistant strains of bacterial infection. Then we really will be screwed if a more virulent and lethal virus comes along.

 Sometimes it is best to keep the public in the dark because collectively we often do not know what’s good for us as a whole. But then that would be a conspiracy, wouldn’t it?

18 Comments

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18 responses to “Swine Panic

  1. I was freaked out too when I first heard about it, especially since there were cases in my city (NYC). Since the incessant media coverage had me just about reaching for Purell smoothies to start my day, I’ve decided to relax instead. P.S. The flu did not start spreading in this city like wildfire and I think that’s a pretty good indication that the media totally hyped up the situation. Hopefully they will find something else to turn their attention towards.

  2. Erin

    The media did hype it up a bit too much. To me, it’s a simple manner of taking the simple precautions into mind in order to prevent the flu. It shouldn’t be any different than normal hygiene practices. This nursing site has some helpful tips.

  3. Well said, Bruce. I wrote this for my column on Monday – great minds and all that…

    As if bird flu wasn’t a fey enough illness to potentially die from, now we’re in mortal danger of catching a cold from a pig.
    I like the fact that when it comes to possible pandemics, we upgrade pigs to ‘swine’ and the common-or-garden bird to ‘avian’ – no one wants to see the word ‘pig’ on a death certificate, whereas ‘swine’ lends a real air of sophistication to matters.
    George Orwell warned us about this in 1984; Napoleon might not be dictating over a totalitarian state, but he’s sneezing in our faces, and that’s arguably worse.
    Swine flu is the new Jade Goody, being a story big enough to force stories of economic gloom from the front pages; we have that to thank it for, at least.
    The couple who honeymooned in Mexico and returned to Blighty with the new mutation of the H1N1 (really? You shouldn’t have. A postcard would have sufficed) have had the ill grace to start getting better.
    This doesn’t fit with the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ tack most media appear to be taking or the fact that the flu virus regularly bumps off fairly frightening numbers of people every year, albeit a boringly normal human flu, not one caught from our porcine pals.
    (My favourite example to date. A Sun headline: ‘The whole of humanity is at risk…’ – further down the web page: ‘Sun readers are starting to get scared after cases of swine flu are confirmed in UK’. You don’t say.)
    The truth is far more boring, if you bear in mind death viruses from the past few years which threatened to wipe us out but actually fizzled out with a whimper or a squawk.
    Scientists told us that BSE (now reclassified as ‘bovine flu’) could see off 10 million of us, that Sars might kill tens of millions and that avian flu would possibly total one in four of us – these predictions were from people far cleverer than us who we pay to simplify the risks that face us every day and none of them came to pass.
    I for one am not prepared to die from an illness that comes from pigs, especially as I am a vegetarian and therefore have been helping those trottered riders of the apocalypse out for decades.
    I’m also not keen on wearing a mask, unless they come in black, and if the children have to stop eating sausages, I very much fear their diet will go back to the bad old days when they only ate things if they were (a) beige (b) from McDonalds or (c) hewn entirely from sugar.
    Perhaps we need a little perspective. You’re still more likely to be run over by a bus than you are to be scythed down in your prime by swine – unless you live in the countryside and it’s a Sunday. In which case, the pigs may have the upper hand.

  4. Well said, WIB.

    Funnily enough, I was going to pen an almost identical piece myself, but the best I could manage was, “I’m getting really pigged off with all this!”

    I’ll leave it to the professionals.

  5. Bluemoon

    Great post however can I point out the elevator Interesting post but the elevator button issue related to SARS which was a much more deadly virus unrelated to Influenza. The hysteria around it however was much the same although the mortality was much greater. SARS virus was found in Hong Kong in a hotel where there was a very high incidence in people staying on a particular level at the hotel and it was thought to be spread hand to mouth via the elevator and elevator button. Interestingly it was also found in the faeces of cockroaches in a neighbouring block of flats……

  6. brucehood

    Ah.. it’s been a long time Bluemoon but I guess that’s the nature of hearing from you. Yes, indeed it was SARS and not avian flu. Thank you for the correction. Can I ask you to read my account of SARS, the link with the civet cat, Chanel No. 5 and the need to spread an animal’s bum juice on our necks in my book. I am sure you will be surprised.
    bruce

  7. pinnythewu

    I feel left out. Here in NZ, we are apparently extremely contaminated with swine flu and are all going to die horribly, but I don’t have it. No one I know has it either. In fact, I think the only reason the government is telling us we all have it is so that we stop moving to Australia.

  8. poietes

    Good gods almighty. If people don’t have enough sense not to sneeze into other people’s faces or to wash their hands after touching all of those germ-infested things like public doorknobs, elevator buttons, and toilet sanitizers (because they look like giants mints), then they deserve to be overstimulated by media frenzies.

    Of course, the conspiracy theorists would have to pipe in as we all know that somehow companies that produce tortillas and sanitary wipes have long been in collusion.

    As to the traffic directing police officers on the road who are sporting face masks, might I just inquire as to how they are going to catch piglet flu by waving their hands at cars?

    Harumph. Makes me downright curmudgeonly.

  9. As long as our leaders maintain a lackadaisical attitude toward open borders and medical security at points of entry, it is just a matter of time before we do see a global pandemic in some form or another.

  10. Arno

    Yep, the media went a bit overboard on the Mexican flu, but sometimes the panic pays off. I think tons of people would have been very happy (not to mention alive) if the media had made a huge fuss about HIV.

    Besides, the Mexican flu was an unknown virus, so it wasn’t certain how it would react to a human host. That something is a flu, does not make it ‘merely’ a flu: it most of the time means it is a highly contagious virus. Whether it kills a host, depends on various factors, including mutations and the physical condition of the host. Even the ‘common’ annual flu takes an average of 40.000 lives in Europe (with numbers up to 220.000 when it happens to be an active one), the Asian, Asiatic and Hong Kong flu each killed over a million people, and the Spanish flu made more victims than the entire freaking 4 years of World War 1 that preceded it (40 freaking million).
    With such a track record, I can’t blame both scientists and the media to react strongly when a flu of unknown origin unexpectedly starts spreading rather rapidly and some of its hosts become worm food.

    It’s also the reason why I am happy the media is currently starting to pay more attention to the situation in Pakistan – something about a nuclear-armed state being under attack by a group that seems to show no objections to dying as long as they take as many people as possible with them, kinda makes me nervous. It has doomsday potential.

  11. I totally agree. I wrote a blog in the beginning of this thing worrying that governments of the world would use this as an excuse to limit freedoms. 3 days ago, I wrote this short blog showing the origins of the Chinese character for “Home” and how it relates to the Flu. Thought some may enjoy it.

  12. brucehood

    Interesting post Sabio. Other folks should take a look too. I think you are right that the tendency to see resemblances and patterns of similarity is a powerful mechanism and explains many aspects of human reasoning.
    Thanks for sharing
    Bruce

  13. Thank you Bruce, I wrote something similar to your comment 2 days after that post. If you are interested, also see:
    Seeing Jesus: The Benefits of Pareidolia.

  14. poietes

    Sabio,

    I jumped to your site. Interesting post. I know that Chinese characters are based on words and ideas (e.g. two women fighting represents family, I think). But I had never really thought beyond that. Thanks.

  15. okathleen

    I’ve got some special oinkment for all those little rashers…

    http://www.okathleen.wordpress.com

  16. jacarandamimosifolia

    The other language-related issue with all of this that struck me was the (apparently) willful misunderstanding of the word ‘pandemic’ to be a measurement of the severity of the virus rather than its geographic spread.

    Meanwhile, call me a crazed conspiracy theorist if you will, but this is from the 2008 report to stockholders of Roche Laboratories, manufacturers of Tamiflu:

    “FY 2009 Outlook
    For the year, we forecast sales of Tamiflu to (be) up 531.0%, due to expected resumption of government stockpiling in FY2009…”

    Now that’s some kind of Supersense…

  17. Bluemoon

    Definition of a pandemic – A pandemic (from Greek παν pan all + δήμος demos people) is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. Surely then irrespective of how severe the illness is it is a pandemic having spread across continents and within countries?

    Try Oinksip Max for snotty snouts, tired trotters and chilly chops!

  18. We just keep referring to it as “bacon lung” or the “hiney virus” and occasionally joke about making sure we have a bucket of “survival food” and water stored in the basement.

    Must be a Colorado thing. Every time a potential crisis arises we start breaking out the MRE’s, water storage and purification tablets, and if you’re really serious, semi-automatic assault rifles. (We are not all that serious. I hate assault rifles.)

    Oh, and toilet paper, why is it everyone forgets to stock up on plenty of toilet paper?

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