April 30, 2009

First off, let it be said that the purpose of this article is not to dissuade any Valley citizens from being concerned about Swine Flu; the recent spread of the 500-year-old H1N1 virus from Mexico has dominated the headlines, and for ample reason. It is, however, a cautionary tale using the history of pandemics to suggest several hypotheses about infectious diseases and their fomenting by natural and other forces.

Resolved: One, that though there is reason for wariness in the area due to the proximity of the border with Mexico, the recent actions of various school districts and the state’s governing sports body, the UIL, could perhaps be seen as an overreach, mainly in response to frantic 24-7 media saturation bordering on sensationalism.

Two, that given the current state of affairs in regard to the outbreak of Swine Flu, the numbers of those affected, however distressing they might seem, pale drastically in comparison to those associated with the most severe such incidents in history, and quite frankly are not even in the same ballpark as a series of lesser, previous outbreaks.

Three, that behind the frantic response to the situation are a handful of interesting commentaries on the modern human condition, among them being over-emphasis on health scares, a mystical belief in the perfectibility of nature through science, and the propensity for important institutional decisions to be made increasingly on the basis of litigation and fear of populist retribution through the courts.

Now, with the theses laid out, let me reiterate that by no means am I attempting to downplay the potential seriousness of the situation. It should be obvious by now that even though the average year produces 36,000 influenza-related deaths in the United States, extrapolating the possible cost to human life from Swine Flu ’09 gives both health experts and the man on the street cause for pause, if not panic.

But as is usually the case in the Age of Information, the media have taken the cart of the potential for disaster and placed it firmly before the horse of actual data. Herein lies a fascinating example of agenda-setting, whereby the media do not necessarily inform the public what to think of any given subject, but certainly set the table as to what readers and viewers should be thinking about.

Taking my theses point by point (with apologies for structural deviation at times) in what one might suggest is reverse order in terms of cosmic, long-term significance:

Hundreds of school districts have closed down in the wake of the reports that over 150 people in Mexico have died from the latest incarnation of influenza stemming from contact with pigs. Spring sports such as baseball, softball, and track and field have seen their postseasons postponed because of it.

The fact is, though, that the closures and postponements came in rapid succession and were based partially on a factor that has been little if at all commented on by a tunnel-vision media. While humanitarian concern for the welfare of the young has been trumpeted as the main rationale behind the self-induced, relative paralysis of the high school world, the truth is probably closer to a legal matter. The potential for a lawsuit in this litigation-mad world is simply too pressing to ignore, and thus, districts and governing bodies like the UIL have chosen to head ‘em off at the pass, ‘em being the legion of ambulance chasers who have to be licking their chops at the thought of the cash-cow, or pig in this case, which has presented itself.

The cynic’s view, no doubt, but an easy leap to make given the explosion of lawsuits in the past 25 years. Can anyone suggest that the decision to retard the progress of the spring sports season in South Texas had nothing whatsoever to do with trepidation over cost and court?

Now, as to the history of pandemics. The initial example in recorded history - and realize that biologists have been able to speculate about countless examples in prehistoric times where the precarious balance and equilibrium between man and bacteria was disrupted - came in 430 BCE in Greece. The Plague of Athens struck during the Peloponnesian War, wafting its way from Ethiopia to the city-state of Athens. It was typhoid fever, according to the great historian Thucydides, spread by close-quartered troops (early version of football teams, one opines) making their way back from North Africa to the Mediterranean and Aegean. Before it was done the illness raged though the land, killing one-fourth of the population of Athens, including the great orator, Pericles.

Though there were various subsequent outbreaks of plague, typhoid fever, small pox and the like, the next truly devastating pandemic - this term describing the spread of a communicable disease across two continents or more - was in the Middle Ages. The Black Death, as it came to be known in literature and lore, originated in Asia in 1347 and laid waste to 50 percent of the European population in five dreadful years. One-third of the world died during this scourge.

The first known influenza outbreak erupted in 1580, and since then, there has been a pandemic involving the disease roughly every 10 to 30 years on average. In recent times, there have been three major outbreaks of note, in 1918-19, 1957-58, and 1968-69. The first was the worst, the so-called Spanish Flu that was actually initially detected at a military base in Kansas, of all places (again, draw the link between military and sports), before spreading in intensity and media fame to Europe and beyond. The scourge ended up killing twice as many people as had perished in the just concluded Great War, or World War I. It affected a billion people, or half the world population, including 17 million dead in India alone. That is, roughly equivalent to 15 dead Rio Grande Valleys.

The next major outbreak, the Asian Flu of ‘57-’58, claimed 70,000 American lives and 2 million globally. It was followed by the Hong Kong Flu of ’68-’69, which caused 34,000 U.S. deaths and 1 million worldwide.

Bottom line, the Swine Flu Panic of 2009, in somewhat similar fashion as the SARS scare and Avian or Bird Flu case of the current decade, presents a classic case of what one might term hyper-vigilance. It is both to the credit and potential debit of the modern world that communication is such a ubiquitous feature and engine in daily life. On one hand, ponder the Black Plague era and what might have happened to the good had the inhabitants of the then adolescent world been gifted with the health-care information that citizens possess today. On the other, many examples in recent years have shown that people tend to overreact to what they read and hear from the media, often falling into deep panic and depression as repetition and sensationalizing of various topics construct an interpretive reality that is far from the actual truth of the situation. The numbers seldom add up to panic, and yet mass-mediated panic has become a growth industry.

The problem with the mass media is that its members tend to take stories like this and run with them, partly out of the public-service component that has always been somewhat at the fore of the mission, but partly, admittedly, out of the lust for attention in the form of ratings, sales, and revenue resulting therein. Finding the tradeoff between speed and volume of coverage, against reasoned, methodical reporting based on fact and not myth or rumor, is a difficult animal to cage and control.

With the world economy in one of its periodic swoons, and with new leadership anxious to remake the country in the image it sees as proper, the setting is ripe for overkill. We are nervous and quick to leap. Where we leap can at times be an after-thought.

Again, mistake not this essay as an attempt to excessively downplay the potential seriousness of the matter. Ingest it, rather, as a pass at the longitudinal view of the drama, founded on historical comparison, consideration of ulterior and/or alternative motives from certain parties, and a surmisal that while any outbreak of infectious disease should engender necessary precautions, we must not dive wildly off the deep end at the first sign of an incident that has repeated itself, out of biological routine, in every generation across the globe since recorded history began.

To cancel the regional track meet or not, to don masks at the grocery store or not, and to intuit impending doom on the scale of the Plague of Athens/Black Plague or not, these are decisions that each individual should be allowed to make. Usually, however, logic dictates that institutions such as media, government, and science generally drive the emotional train, not always to net gain either physical or psychological for the “beneficiaries” of the decision-making.

Let us listen first to the scientists, and let the political leaders take their lead from the experts who study such cases for their daily bread. Finally, there is the media, charged with relaying the pronouncements of the aforementioned specialists to the public. May they undertake their task solemnly, with firm understanding of the propensities of human nature to cause citizens to race off 100 miles to the west, when the answer and proscription may well lie in the opposite direction.

Their job is to inform, not to incite.