Normally I am don’t pay much attention to whatever the media may be hyping as the new doom of the day. Seriously, watching the news sometimes feels like watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the Apocalypse seems to be nigh on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s at least entertaining. My favourite so far had to have been “Africanized bees” scare a while back. Due to the fact that I had been around fully African bees my whole life tended to make me snicker at all the senseless panic. However with the current swine flu scare it’s a little harder to be flippant. For one thing it may actually be a serious threat. For another, every un-skeptical group out there seems to be vying for a piece of the swine flu pie: The religious (It’s ritual Satanic deliverance of the innocents to death, timed to occur with the occult day Cinco de Mayo!), the alternative medicine groups (Big Pharma probably started it to make money, get a chiropractic adjustment to stop it instead!!), the anti-vaccinators (It’s a trap to get you to take their evil vaccinations of evil!!!), the conspiracy theorists (It’s a race specific bioweapon!!!!) and of course those who are all of the above (The Antichrist New World Order engineered this virus because they want to kill 80% of the world through poisonous vaccines!!!!!). Therefore I feel I would be amiss as a skeptic if I don’t write something about swine flu.
There is a very good reason why the current swine flu is such a hotbed for conspiracy theorists, this is not the first time we crossed paths with it and the last time was an absolute fiasco (in fact “fiasco” doesn’t begin to describe it but I’m trying to keep the blog at least nominally child friendly). The 1976 Swine flu outbreak had everything a conspiracy theorist could pray for, Government and the pharmaceutical companies combining their powers resulting in the death and paralysis of citizens and all over a threat that turned out to be a false alarm. As always, a little perspective does a world of good. A sober account of what happened can be found here but for the lazy, the highlights are as follows:
1. Doctors overreacted to a soldier dying of the flu, fearing another outbreak like the Spanish influenza. 2. A government reeling from a lot of negative sentiment following Watergate and Vietnam grabbed hold of this as a chance to redeem themselves to the voting public. 3. Ignoring all warnings by concerned experts the President pushed through an aggressive vaccination campaign using untested and unproven vaccines. 4. There were casualties and instances of Guillain-Barré syndrome amongst those who received the vaccinations and the program was immediately stopped. 5. It turned out that there was no flu danger to begin with and everyone involved (Pres Ford especially) ended up disgraced.
The 1976 disaster serves as the gold standard of how not to handle situations like these. All indications so far are that these are lessons we learned well and I don’t see anyone in power responding with the kind of hysteria they had in ’76. While many fear another disastrous vaccination drive the truth is that neither the WHO nor the CDC are calling for people to get vaccinated and at the moment there is no vaccine for swine flu. Lastly while I don’t deny that it was massively foolish to use untested vaccinations on the populace, it is worth noting that out of around 40 million vaccinations, there were only 3 possible deaths (3 elderly people died after being vaccinated, it was never proven that the vaccine was responsible) and around a 1000 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (again not linked definitively to the vaccine). Don’t get me wrong, having a thousand people paralyzed is an unacceptably high number. However this fact, coupled with the fact that the program was almost immediately halted after things started going wrong completely destroys this image the conspiracy theorists have of Government and the pharmaceutical companies gleefully rubbing their hands and doing the Dr Evil laugh while willfully poisoning people. You can blame this fiasco on political ambition, incompetence, misinformation and bad decisions but not on malice.
In the weeks to come we will see how this all plays out. Hopefully it will go the way of Bird flu and SARS and be contained before it can do too much damage. In cases like this there are 3 things everyone should be doing:
1. Don’t panic. Various groups but especially the media profit greatly from fear mongering. Fear and panic causes irrational responses and bad decisions and here we should learn from 1976. Be very careful who you believe and where you get your information from. Don’t make any knee jerk decisions and always double check your facts.
2. Get educated. Shutting out the fearmongers is a good step one but you have to go a step further and get the facts. Don’t listen to the politicians and the media, listen to the experts. By experts I don’t mean the guy the local news got a soundbite from or some guy on Oprah or anyone ever on Alex Jones’ show, I mean the people whose job it is to inform and protect you from threats like these. Go see what the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control are telling you and check it at the source, not second hand.
3. Take it seriously. With all the doom and gloom that the media promises and reality fails to deliver it’s easy to start thinking of all these viral threats as the boy who cried wolf. It’s worth noting how the story of the boy who cried wolf ended though. The flu virus can and has been devastatingly lethal. Especially when we face a new mutation able to kill strong young adults that we have no natural immunity against it is better to err on the side of caution. Every time a new strain jumps species or mutates to a new form it’s like playing Russian roulette. Sure, maybe most of the time you get lucky and get away unharmed but it is never going to be safe to put that gun to your head, ever. We never know what direction a virus like this is going to take so it’s always best to treat it seriously even if it turned out to not be that dangerous the time before (and the time before that). We shouldn’t be consumed by fear and panic but neither should be underestimate the dangers. It can mean the difference between a false alarm and a world wide disaster.
I spent most of my life as a fundamentalist and discovered Reason much later than I would have liked. I'm still dealing with the trauma and this blog is my therapy. So this is me: non-conformist, heretic, fan of delicious flavour and a man without a home. I’m a cynical optimist and a really angry zen master. I am just a man trying to make sense of it all. This is my life in juxtaposition.