Alarm, paranoia and even terror--such are the emotions that a pandemic brings out. And in human history, some pandemics have deserved their reputation. For example, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, more than the Black Death.
On the other hand, when it comes to things to worry about, it seems the swine flu should rank pretty low on the list. While the standard human influenza virus killed 33,000 people last year, to date there hasn't been a single confirmed case of death from the H1N1 influenza virus (other than an unfortunate child who came here from Mexico).
Experts say the swine flu isn't particularly virulent, though they admit that since it's a new flu strain, they can't be sure what impact it will have as it spreads. But that hasn't stopped the media--and moreover, community health providers--from fanning the flames of fear.
In an effort to look responsible in the face of the swine flu, community hospitals are actually showing themselves to be opportunistic and irresponsible.
* Do overcrowded emergency departments really need more people flooding their ED just because they developed a cough or sneeze? Isn't it possible truly acute patients will be harmed or die because resources were diverted to these frightened but perfectly healthy patients?
* Don't hospitals risk having people in their community develop "emergency fatigue" and ignoring real threats if they're subjected to too much alarmist communication? I'd wager that more people die of undetected cancer each year than will ever die of swine flu--and if you want prevention messages to stand out, you need to keep them clear. People have a finite attention span.
* Sure, the unscientific and unfounded fearmongering may get you a PR hit from your local newspaper if you write up a swine flu press release, but does that really enhance your role as a trusted community leader?
Hospitals and doctors, unless we learn otherwise, I think it's time to cut back on the bunker mentality and reassure scared patients. That way, if someone throws anthrax into the air, they'll actually be able to tell the difference. - Anne