Ten years ago, SARS caused more than 80 deaths in Taiwan and estimated economic losses of about NT$600 billion (US$20 billion at current exchange rates). Responsible for this cost are those academics who freely spread rumors that created a panic among the public.
SARS may have passed, but the academics remain. With the flu outbreak in 2009, some academics said it could claim 7,000 lives in Taiwan. While the news made the front pages, the reality is that 41 people died.
The academics’ estimates were based on the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 and were arrived at through mathematical deduction. For this method to be accurate, the two events being compared must be identical, or at least very similar.
The anarchy at the end of World War I was very different from the situation in Taiwan in 2009, and that is the reason why the experts’ forecasts not only failed, but failed miserably.
When the US was ravaged by influenza last year, there were academics predicting that 4,000 people could die in Taiwan, but once again they were completely wrong. Why? Because they had not considered that this influenza epidemic had appeared in Taiwan the year before it appeared in the US.
The public met these two incidents with unusual calm and a more informed attitude than those experts who claim to be the real experts. The maturity and wisdom of Taiwanese that helped stabilize the economy was probably born of the ennui that resulted from having had to listen to too much nonsense spewed by pundits.
Now that the H7N9 outbreak is spreading in China, these so-called experts cannot wait to come forward again. There is only limited information, but that does not stop them from speculating. All we know for sure is that the virus is an avian influenza strain that is spread from animals to people, but there is no evidence that it is being spread from person to person.
Despite this, these experts keep offering explanations about how it spreads from person to person and have even forecast that the virus can spread during the incubation period. They must truly be geniuses to be able to distort even simple basic scientific fact.
The Central Epidemic Disease Surveillance Command Center should hurry to correct these remarks, which are not backed up by fact, or it will become very difficult to prevent even bigger mistakes from appearing.
An analysis of these remarks shows that they are mostly based on deductions from past seasonal influenzas and then freely applied to the current virus outbreak. WHO research into the 2009 influenza outbreak shows that it was created by an H1N1 virus, and it has also been confirmed that it cannot spread during the incubation period.
This means that second-degree contact — protected ambulance personnel, nurses providing care following diagnosis, individuals at home or in the same building — is risk-free and requires no follow-up. This reduces the risk of a lot of unnecessary panic.
The H7N9 virus still has not entered Taiwan, and there is no related research in Taiwan. At the moment, no one in the nation has been infected by the virus, which means there are also no clinical diagnoses or treatment data on which these experts could base statements. When members of the public get such information, they should analyze it carefully.
At a time when the situation is unclear, no unreserved or unqualified remarks should be made by analogy with previous data.
Although H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 all are A-type influenzas, they are ever-changing viruses.
Commentators should act responsibly and make remarks only with the utmost caution.
Wang Jen-hsien is president of the Taiwan Counter Contagious Diseases Center.
Translated by Perry Svensson