Friday, May 27, 2005

A Lesson in Fear Mongering

Those wily government folk are at it again, creating fear out of thin air by manipulating statistics and comparing apples with roast beef.

CNN just ran an article with the headline, Experts Say Flu Pandemic is Imminent. It’s a short enough article, with enough outrageously manipulative statements that I feel like deconstructing the whole damn thing. The CNN article is in red. My commentary in black.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Health experts warn that things are falling into place for a global flu pandemic like the one in 1918 that killed tens of millions of people worldwide. They say it might not be quite as extreme, but by all calculations, will be very dangerous.

Who are these experts? What are their credentials? What method have they used to calculate the dangers of the imminent flu pandemic? Anyone who lives in Ontario or British Columbia will no doubt recall the fear-mongering that accompanied the SARS outbreak of two years ago. A couple of dozen people died from a respiratory illness. The media and health officials were comparing SARS to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Hello? Tens of millions of deaths in 1918 and a couple dozen people warrants this kind of comparison? This is a tactic to ensure the public readily accepts, nay, demands government to intervene and develop a vaccine.

"We're staring down the barrel of a loaded gun and that gun is ready to fire," said Rep. MichaelFerguson, R-New Jersey, at a congressional hearing Thursday.

This is a great “red-meat” quote by a politician. Again, what are his population health credentials? Dammit, Jim, he’s a politician, not a doctor. His image of the loaded gun is very effective at creating the impression that anyone who comes in contact with this inevitable flu will die…not many people are shot point blank in the eye and survive. Fear-mongering.
Health officials at the hearing agreed. They believe a flu pandemic is inevitable and it will likely come from the bird flu that is spreading in Asia.

Still no idea who these health officials are. Are they drug-makers? Are they share-holders in the company that will stand up and save the day by creating a vaccine? Who are they? Why are their opinions more credible than mine? What data do they have to support their claims?
That flu is dangerous because it is a strain that most humans have never been exposed to, so there is no natural immunity and there is no vaccine.

It didn’t take long – just 125 words – before the miracle vaccine is introduced. But in those 125 words great fear has been created – or at least the seeds of concern have been sowed. Oh my, we have no natural immunity to this flu…in fact, we have no natural immunity to most strains of the flu since it’s always changing…at least, I believe that’s true. But I’m happy to be corrected on that point.
But now it's infecting humans. The virus first spread from bird to bird; then some of the people who work with the birds became infected. Fifty-three people died.

Get this manipulative tactic: Humans are now being infected…Fifty-three people have died. It’s not millions (or even hundreds) but people are dying. This is a little scarier – but wait! Read on and find out that…
So far, avian flu has only spread from person to person twice. But if that becomes more frequent, experts say, a pandemic could be imminent.

Ahhh…only TWO people have caught it from another human being. The others have caught the flu from birds. Most of them work with birds in conditions that would appall even folks who know how KFC chickens spend their lives.
The health officials laid out for a congressional committee what they are doing to prepare treatments and a vaccine. The news wasn't good.

Am I the only person who at this point is wondering if there even are any health officials? Not a single quote from these mysterious, unnamed doomsdayers…
A vaccine is in development but since it has to be matched to the flu strain once it's spreading in the human population, it would take six months after the first cases to complete it.

Now I’m confused. I thought we just learned that two people have contracted this pandemic flu strain from humans. It’s now spreading in the human population according to a couple of paragraphs ago. So, all we need is six months from the first cases to have the vaccine made. We must be well on our way since I heard about those human-to-human transmissions ages ago. Why is the reporter saying "it would take" when the process must already be underway? To create more tension, perhaps?
"It isn't as if overnight we'd be able to get a vaccine for everyone who is going to need a vaccine," said Dr.Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of health.

Finally, one of the health experts speaks! And what a gem of a quote. It also isn’t as if we’d NEED a vaccine overnight, either, would we Dr.Fauci? And who are the “everyone” who will need the vaccine? Is it, “everyone?” Or will it be “people who live in rural areas where avian farming is prominent?” Or will it be “people in China where the flu is now making rounds?” Or could it be “people whose last name has the prefix or suffix ‘bird’ in it?”
Treatment isn't easy either. There is one drug available now that works against this type of flu, but it needs to be given within 48 hours of infection.

Again, mucho confusion. Two paragraphs ago I was lead to believe that it WOULD take six months to develop the vaccine after the first cases are identified. And now I learn that the drug is already available! So there’s a vaccine that works! I don’t need to be as scared, do I? If I start to feel sick, I’ll see my doctor and get the shot.
"When you start getting the flu it's hard to distinguish it from any other upper respiratory infections so most people don't realize they have flu until past the 48 hour window," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Or maybe I won’t get the vaccine because I may not realize that I’m about to drop dead from the avian flu pandemic that could be as devastating as the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Please! By the time the avian flu hits North America the public will be so scared that they’ll be getting vaccines and taking drugs for every sneeze and tickle in their throat. I’ll take bets on it!


Blogger Donna said...

I post this blog on a couple of blog services and try to direct everyone to the blogspot address. But here's a reply to this post that was left at one of my other blog addresses. I thought it was valuable to capture since the poster makes some very astute challenges to my post. Rejoctomorph writes:

Needless Needles

Submitted by rejectomorph on May 27, 2005 - 8:57pm.
I'm not a fan of panic vaccinations myself, and think that a post on this issue is a good idea, but I'd like to point out a fundumental problem with the course of your argument.

Your opening line suggests that you are going to be criticizing the Congressional Committee that is holding these hearings, but most of your points rest on something over which the committee clearly has no control: The thinness of the CNN article about the hearings. This makes the post seem unfocused. Are you criticizing the government's handling of a health issue, or are you criticizing the journalist's reporting of the government's actions?

If the former, it would be better to hunt down as much of the actual testimony as you can, or at least some articles which cover the event in greater detail, and base your arguments on the information in those. The CNN article is simply too brief to provide a solid platform for your arguments.

Also, I should point out one specific error you have made, on which those who support vaccine programs are bound to seize. It is in your rejoinder to this section of the article:

"Treatment isn't easy either. There is one drug available now that works against this type of flu, but it needs to be given within 48 hours of infection."

The medication to which they refer is clearly not a vaccine, as it is given to people who are already infected by the virus. A vaccine is a preventive, which must be given before infection takes place, if it is to have any effect. They are two entirely different types of medication.

Again, I'd like to point out that I'm not hostile to your point of view. I only think that (and, sorry if this sounds a bit harsh) this particular post has some serious weaknesses that undermine your point rather than strengthening it."

May 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rose, you might find some explanation of what those 'experts' are talking about in this link to an article written (and signed) by one of those experts:

June 21, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skepticism can be seen as the attitude of asking hard questions about the information that's presented to us. It takes some creativity because when we are skeptical we try and find alternatives to what is being presented to us, and also alternatives regarding the motivation of the speaker.

Of course, skepticism doesn't guarantee we know what we're talking about (yet). It may be a good first step, but it should not be the last.

I believe there's a seed of truth behind the news. and are two good starting points, if you want to go further.

June 27, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a web site devoted entirely to a deep and detailed exploration of risk communications on the flu pandemic scenario by a risk management consultant that is outstanding; you can read it here:

February 18, 2006  

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