May 032009
 
Authors: Kevin Hollinshead

The media has always served as a great prognosticator of doom and destruction, and their coverage of H1N1, commonly known as the swine flu, has been no exception.

However, what many do not realize is that this remarkable media attention, as well as the panic it has caused, has led to unprecedented world focus on preventing the spread of disease and a call for mass production of vaccines.

I dare say that this media frenzy has actually been an effective tool to not only contain the current outbreak but also to lead to steps toward improving global plans to prevent and contain future outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that around 36,000 Americans die every year of ordinary flu strains. Like the swine flu, most of these deaths occurred in people who died of complications such as respiratory failure or of a pre-existing condition made worse by a weakened immune system.

In this context, ordinary flu strains have been deadlier than the swine flu. Federal officials even conceded as much, stating H1N1 has relatively little staying power in even the cities hardest-hit. Scientists have said this strain lacks certain genetic traits found in previous killer bugs.

The media, however, has virtually ignored this fact and has devoted significantly less coverage to ordinary flu deaths, prevention and treatment options than to the hot new story.

This coverage has led to a massive undertaking in sanitation and other preventative practices. Schools are closing by the hundreds across several states to help mitigate the spread, both by keeping already-sick children home as well as by thoroughly sterilizing desks, lockers and more.

Because some people view this less virulent bug as the next bubonic plague, it sets the stage for improving pandemic-related protocol worldwide aimed at rendering all strains of influenza less effective in killing or incapacitating people.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 claimed millions of lives worldwide, largely because people at that time did not know what we know today about influenza and its spread. Today’s comprehensive anti-outbreak measures certainly did not exist then. The first effective vaccines did not even roll out until around 1940, courtesy of the U.S. military.

This isn’t even the first swine flu scare.

In 1976, an outbreak of a variant of the H1N1 strain was contained within the walls of Fort Dix, a military installation in New Jersey. Even so, President Ford implemented a $135 million inoculation program largely in response to — yep — public hysteria.

Unfortunately, not all media exposure has been helpful in stopping the spread of the disease. Some politicians are using this outbreak not to enhance influenza awareness among constituents,Proxy-Connection: keep-alive

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or to improve pandemic response systems, but as a political platform.

On Friday, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia blamed the outbreak on a convenient target: illegal immigration.

For his example, Rep. Broun had the audacity to exploit the death of a 23-month-old toddler in Texas to advance his xenophobic case.

While I won’t waste space telling you why air travel is a far bigger culprit in the swine flu’s spread than our porous southern border, I will say that this “illegal” was indeed from Mexico. He came to this country legally, however, with his family to get treatment for an underlying condition, and was staying with relatives who are also in the country legally.

Tasteless advancements of agenda aside, the media frenzy surrounding the swine flu has resulted in increased scrutiny of flu prevention and general sanitary practices both domestically and abroad.

More people are requesting information on vaccinations and treatments than ever before, and the fear of catching the disease has led to some of the most aggressive anti-outbreak action ever taken. There’s also a lot more hand washing going on — never a bad thing. It’s no coincidence that the death toll is leveling off.

Kevin Hollinshead is a sophomore political science major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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