No, Really, Swine Flu Is Not A Threat

Posted by – May 4, 2009

My last post on swine flu paranoia got some responses.  Here’s why I think they are wrong.


First, Eric:

While I agree with the content of this article, I disagree with the intent. Wearing a mask may not be very helpful in keeping you from catching a disease, but it is quite effective at helping others from catching whatever disease that you may have.

Unfortunately, Americans are too selfish to bother with masks if all it does it helps others from getting sick, so the best way to get them to wear masks is to let them believe the lie that it helps them from getting sick as well.

Of course, some may argue that the propounding such a lie is worse than the help it causes in keeping diseases from spreading as easily. But as a utilitarian, I have to say that I’d prefer the lie to exist if it meant people would wear masks when they’re sick.

Originally posted as a comment by Eric_Herboso on Nick’s Crusade using Disqus.

Eric, I disagree, first off, with the claim that surgical masks prevent the wearer from spreading the flu. As noted here, flu can pass through the masks easily, and, for blocking germ-carrying mucous particles, is no more effective than covering your mouth when you cough.

Everyone should remember that surgical masks are designed to prevent patients’ bodily fluids (blood, mucous, etc.) from splashing onto the nose and mouth of doctors and nurses in hospital situations. Wearing a mask is worth it, to avert even a minuscule chance of contact with HIV-infected blood. But surgical masks aren’t really designed to block airborne viruses, in either direction.

Secondly, you’re crossing over into Strauss’ “the noble lie,” theory, and that’s creepy, especially given its recent implementation (see WMD, Iraq). Isn’t there a human right to the truth? I’m not a utilitarian because it too often leads to crushing the rights of the individual to produce “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” This leads to absurdities, like a utilitarian I met at Spring Hill, who told me he wouldn’t eat fish because of the suffering it may cause, but, when I pressed him on the Iraq war, wouldn’t condemn it, because “it may well lead to better lives for more people in the long-term.” Once someone puts fish above the deaths of millions and Iraqis’ immeasurable suffering, they lose me. I’m digressing here; the debate over utilitarianism belongs in its own posts. I’d love debating utilitarianism and Peter Singer with you in a series of posts, if you’re amenable (I wanted to do this back at SHC).


Regarding Len’s comment:

While I agree on the silliness of the masks, I would not take the threat so lightly. The general population is likely to have greater immunity to the run of the mill flu that goes around each season. This is more foreign to the average immune system. For that reason, it could be very dangerous if it really took hold.

Originally posted as a comment by Len on Nick’s Crusade using Disqus.

Yes, swine flu (the H1N1 virus) is foreign to the human immune system, but so is the totally new strain of “normal” influenza that requires a new vaccine each year. That flu kills 36,000 Americans a year, and swine flu has killed 1 so far. The toll has been so small because, as the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases is saying, swine flu is no worse than seasonal flu. Even in Mexico City, the epidemic has waned enough that officials have now lowered their alert level. We’re even starting to see some precious few in the media doubt the hysteria, like in this article, TIME: Was the Alarm over Swine Flu Justified?

New York City’s Department of Health is reporting that swine flu is “not causing unexpectedly severe illness” among the 73 confirmed cases in the city (of those 73, 69 of them are from St. Francis Prep School in Queens, where two students recently returned from vacationing in Mexico). This particular flu virus appears to spread as easily as seasonal flu, but is no more deadly.

Yes, it COULD get worse, mutate into something as lethal as avian flu (H5N1), which killed half of those it it infected.

This chart from Wikipedia shows a side-by-side graphical comparison of the H1N1 and H5N1 influenza viruses.  H5N1 (avian flu) spreads very slowly (it has difficulty passing from bird to human) but is very deadly, attacking the lungs.  H1N1 (swine flu) spreads quickly, like seasonal flu, but mostly only effects the upper airways (nose, throat, etc.) and is rarely fatal.

This chart from Wikipedia shows a side-by-side graphical comparison of the H1N1 and H5N1 influenza viruses. H5N1 (avian flu) spreads very slowly (it has difficulty passing from bird to human) but is very deadly, attacking the lungs. H1N1 (swine flu) spreads quickly, like seasonal flu, but mostly only effects the upper airways (nose, throat, etc.) and is rarely fatal.

Yes, IF it mutates into something worse, that would be bad. But that’s a BIG “IF” and hasn’t happened yet. And if it does mutate (the CDC predicts it to surge again in the fall) there’s not a lot we can do to protect ourselves aside from the vigilant hand-washing.


But what we CAN do, is reject the hysteria that’s still as virulent as ever. Outside my friend’s synagogue, some dude is selling surgical masks for $4 each. The masks have become so prevalent in airports that Jamie Lee Curtis had the idea to sell ad space on them (lol). And the media. OMG the media…

The old media, in their death throes, flailing for anything to sell papers and keep themselves afloat, are milking pig flu as much as they can, generating panic.

This Newsweek cover exemplifies the print media exploiting this story:

Yes, this is the real cover of Newsweek.  Its all black, the color of fear and death, and bold white letters title the the cover FEAR & THE FLU and under it, it says THE NEW AGE OF PANDEMICS.  In the lower left corner of the cover, a pigs snout looms beyond cage bars.

Yes, this is the real cover of Newsweek. It's all black, the color of fear and death, and bold white letters title the cover "FEAR & THE FLU" and under it, it says "THE NEW AGE OF PANDEMICS." In the lower left corner of the cover, a pig's snout looms beyond cage bars.

This Newsweek cover, and the story inside it that says mutant flu strains could kill us all in the future, doesn’t leave you with the truth, that there are only 245 confirmed cases of swine flu in the US, and your chances of catching it are comparable to being struck twice by lighting and run over by a freight train while skate-boarding on a national holiday. It doesn’t tell you that the 1976 swine flu panic (and accompanying government scare ads) turned out to be much about nothing. It just tells you how vulnerable you are, that more viruses will mutate and kill, with the subtext being, “buy this magazine and understand the coming menace.”

Please get the whole story and innoculate yourself against all this media fearmongering. That will actually make the world a better place.

Nick

  • Len

    Nick, while as of May 5, 2009, we know the above to be true; we did not know how dangerous or not this was three or four days ago. Had this been blown off and taken lightly, and then turned out to be the deadliest thing to hit the circuit, you would be up in arms about the incompetence of the officials who did not do their jobs. I would be most interest in you creating a public policy to manage risks such as this? If you attempted to do so, you would quickly find that what ever you do, people are likely to over or under react. It is easy to Monday morning quarterback this one from the safety of the present, much harder to manage public reactions and misinformation in real-time.