Thu, Apr 30, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Subscribing to the great swine flu swindle

The risk to the UK from swine flu is tiny, but this fact won’t sell newspapers or justify the WHO’s budget

By Simon Jenkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

We have gone demented here in Britain. Two Britons are or were (not very) ill from flu.

“This could really explode,” intones a reporter for BBC news.

“London warned: it’s here,” cries the Evening Standard.

Fear is said to be spreading “like a Mexican wave.” It “could affect” three-quarters of a million Britons. It “could cost” US$3 trillion.

The “danger,” according to the radio, is that workers who are not ill will be “worried” (perhaps by the reporter) and fail to turn up at power stations and hospitals.

Appropriately panicked, on Monday ministers plunged into their Cobra bunker beneath London to prepare for the worst. Had former prime minister Tony Blair been about they would have worn germ warfare suits. British government is barking mad.

What is swine flu? It is flu, a mutation of the H1N1 virus of the sort that often occurs. It is not a pandemic, despite the media prefix, not yet.

The BBC calls it a “potentially terrible virus,” but any viral infection is potentially terrible. Flu makes you feel ill. You should take medicine and rest. You will then get well again, unless you are very unlucky or have some complicating condition. It is best to avoid close contact with other people, as applies to a common cold.

In Mexico, 2,000 people have been diagnosed as suffering swine flu. Some 150 of them have died, though there is said to be no pathological indication of all these deaths being linked to the new flu strain. People die all the time after catching flu, especially if not medicated.

Nobody anywhere else in the world has died from this infection and only a handful have the new strain confirmed, most in the US and almost all after returning from Mexico. A British couple who caught the flu on holiday in Cancun are getting better. That tends to happen to people who get flu, however much it may disappoint editors.

We appear to have lost all ability to judge risk. The cause may lie in the national curriculum, the decline of “news” or the rise of blogs and concomitant, unmediated hysteria, but people seem helpless in navigating the gulf that separates public information from their daily round.

They cannot set a statistic in context. They cannot relate bad news from Mexico to the risk that inevitably surrounds their lives. The risk of catching swine flu must be millions to one.

Health scares are like terrorist ones. Someone somewhere has an interest in it. We depend on others with specialist knowledge to advise and warn us and assume they offer advice on a dispassionate basis, using their expertise to assess danger and communicating it in measured English. Words such as possibly, potentially, could or might should be avoided. They are unspecific qualifiers and open to exaggeration.

The WHO, always eager to push itself into the spotlight, loves to talk of the world being “ready” for a flu pandemic, apparently on the grounds that none has occurred for some time. There is no obvious justification for this scaremongering. I suppose the world is “ready” for another atomic explosion or another Sept. 11.

Professional expertise is now overwhelmed by professional log-rolling. Risk aversion has trounced risk judgment. An obligation on public officials not to scare people or lead them to needless expense is overridden by the yearning for a higher budget or more profit. Health scares enable media-hungry doctors, public health officials and drug companies to benefit by manipulating fright.

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