October 01, 2005

Avian Flu and the Media

The developing official and media responses to the potential avian flu epidemic are of great interest to students of the media, including criminologists. The situation seems ripe for a moral or other panic. See, for example, the resource page put together by ABC News at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Flu/
as well as the latest articles, one of which includes a prediction of a worldwide death toll of 150 million. Estimates vary greatly, with sober people saying nobody can know the form of the flu or the death toll until "it" happens. The blogosphere is, of course, discussing the flu situation to a high degree.

If you have Windows Media Player see a video posted there that draws attention to the issue at http://mfile.akamai.com/16688/wmv/abcondemand.download.akamai.com/16688/free/050929flus.wmv. In the video Senator Frist quotes an official federal report saying there is a global pandemic flu coming--it's not whether, just when it will happen. The video description of the report says 200,000 Americans will die; that there is no vaccine readily available to deal with it; and that there is only one company making one drug worldwide that supposedly can prevent it.

There is much to consider here...but first, a pill to prevent the kind of flu being considered? Even if the pandemic is possible (which is hotly disputed) given the extraordinary number of deaths associated with the so-called "Spanish Flu" of 86+ years ago it seems highly unlikely that any existing company's drug could prevent such a flu. One has to wonder why media sources would draw attention to a single company--what is the payoff here? Another thought is, should Center for Disease Control officials, or other knowledgeable experts in this area, exercise greater caution than usual given the extraordinary potential for the definition of this problem to rapidly get out of hand? Officials getting the most attention today are quoting the huge number of people who will die, while others who argue that the world is immune from the prior pandemic get little play.

An international discussion of the avian flu by health experts would be welcome, and it appears that this is beginning to happen. In the meantime the blogosphere is beginning to track the avian flu media controversy. One jazzy title is, "Bird Flu, a Media Hoax?". One blog has a subject heading of "Bird Flu Monitor". You can go there and find some more discussion of the media and flu.

More recently there has been more mainstream academic attention to the flu. See, for example, the Yale Global Online collection, and the Harvard contagion web site, both of which have links to other sites.

Also, Wendy Orent's brief article in the Outlook section of The Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/15/AR2005101500102_pf.html is a well written critical piece about the hysteria in response to the avian flu. This is linked to her online discussion at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/10/14/DI2005101401462_pf.html , which answers some of the common questions being asked now about the flu issue, the media, and the Bush Administration's proposed military response to it.

A colleague recently asked, What is the difference in the the mortality levels of the great plague and the 1918-1919 pandemic? The NPR web site has a page on the flu at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4946718. A quote:

*"Compared with Other Epidemics:* The 1918 flu is thought to have killed the most people in the shortest amount of time. However, its spread was aided by modern ships and a world war that required moving huge armies quickly across the globe. The 14th-century's Black Death killed as many as 20 million in Europe alone over a period of two years. However, global population was much smaller, cities weren't as dense, and global transportation relied on wind and animal caravans; considering its high death toll, the bacteria that caused it may have been more deadly."

It seems fairly clear that the plague has to win in the number killed per capita.

The federal government has now created a web site on the flu pandemic at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/. The administration's plan for managing the issue is spelled out there. Already critics are having a go at it. An even more recent site of interest examines the effectiveness of local quarantines in reducing or eliminating the acquisition or spread of the flu: See The 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic Escape Community Digital Document Archive.

The November 18, 2005 Gallup made available their latest data on the most important health care issue facing the U.S. Fully 10% of the people in the U.S. believe that it is the avian flu or bird flu. Prior to this time concern about this issue was nonexistant. It appears clear that the widespread concern about the bird flu has indeed made it into the minds of Americans.

Posted by jackson at October 1, 2005 08:52 PM