May 042009
 
Authors: Erik Anderson

If you have not devolved into a flesh-eating, half-pig zombie yet, then the H1N1 flu virus, formerly known as swine flu, has not materialized into the pandemic the news media originally reported.

After a week of apocalyptic front-page headlines and 24-hour cable news coverage, the virus appears to be in decline.

World Health Organization officials announced over the weekend that the H1N1 flu virus is a mild strain with a mortality rate comparable to the seasonal flu. There is also no evidence that it is spreading in a sustained way outside of North America.

According to the most recent WHO information, 1085 cases have been reported in 21 different countries. Mexico has had 590 cases with 25 deaths. The only other death from the virus was a Mexican toddler who died at a hospital in Texas. The U.S. has reported 286 cases in 36 states.

In comparison, the seasonal flu infects up to 20 percent of the population and claims 250,000 to 500,000 lives worldwide each year.

Humankind’s predictably irrational response to fear has led to a hilarious circus of overreactions and political posturing. Here’s a look back at the swine flu, in memoriam:

The first absurdity was the debate over the name “swine flu.”

An Israeli health official proclaimed that the name was offensive to Jews and Muslims, for whom consumption of pork is forbidden and should be changed to “Mexican flu”-apparently with little consideration of what may be offensive to Mexicans.

I proposed the more scientifically rigorous “man-bird-pig flu.”

The name was officially changed to the H1N1 flu virus after a lobby by the pork industry, and for good reason – despite zero evidence that eating pork can infect a person with swine flu, countries around the world have banned imports of pork products from the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Egypt went as far as to slaughter all 300,000 of its pigs, even though there have been no cases of swine flu in the country. The government’s decision was met with public outcry from pig farmers, who are a Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim country.

In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, international airports have started using thermal scanners to screen travelers from Mexico for signs of fever.

After swine flu was confirmed in one traveler who had flown from Mexico to China, some 400 people from his flight and hotel in Hong Kong were quarantined by the Chinese government. A Mexican ambassador was denied access to Mexico’s quarantined citizens, sparking an international row between the two countries.

Mexico, where the virus originated, was hit hardest.

For the past five days, Mexico City has been shut down to contain the spread of the virus. Trade embargoes and travel restrictions to Mexico imposed by some countries have harmed Mexico’s agriculture and tourism industry.

In the U.S. political sphere, swine flu has been exploited by almost everybody with an agenda, from proponents of immigration reform to animal rights activists. In the spirit of partisanship, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn.. even pointed out the “interesting coincidence” that this swine flu has emerged during Obama’s presidency, insinuating he was somehow to blame.

If we have learned anything from this outbreak, it is that we do not learn very well.

The last swine flu outbreak occurred during Republican President Gerald Ford’s presidency in 1976. Following a period of public panic, the government reacted by immunizing 40 million Americans, leading to 25 deaths and 1,000 cases of ascending paralysis from the vaccine. The immunization program killed more people than swine flu did.

Based on too little information and too much hype, the media turned just another addition to the 1,161 known variations of the flu into a potential pandemic.

In a world where plane travel between countries is a daily occurrence, every new strain of flu can be a pandemic. In most cases, as is the case for swine flu, the fear is actually more devastating than the disease.

Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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