As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Both Overreacting And Underreacting

While the WHO raised their pandemic alert to Level 5, the second-highest level, they also significantly lowered the confirmed number of deaths in Mexico from the H1N1 (swine flu) virus.

30 April 2009 -- The situation continues to evolve rapidly. As of 17:00 GMT, 30 April 2009, 11 countries have officially reported 257 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection.

The United States Government has reported 109 laboratory confirmed human cases, including one death. Mexico has reported 97 confirmed human cases of infection, including seven deaths.

The following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths - Austria (1), Canada (19), Germany (3), Israel (2), Netherlands (1), New Zealand (3), Spain (13), Switzerland (1) and the United Kingdom (8).

Further information on the situation will be available on the WHO website on a regular basis.

In that context, Joe Biden's comments about not allowing his own children to fly on planes or ride on subways seem hyperbolic. But Ezra Klein makes a compelling case that we SHOULD overreact to this possible pandemic.

It's true that the flu is, as of now, not especially deadly. Survival rates are quite high. That's a very good thing. And there's some evidence that this flu will prove mild. Possibly even more mild than a bad flu season. But it's not the end of the story. Influenzas mutate. The question is whether it mutates out of existence or towards lethality. "Towards lethality" becomes more likely if more people catch the flu and thus more mutations emerge. So being aggressive in stopping the spread of the largely non-lethal variant is important if we want to avert the development of a more lethal strain. It's not about stopping this flu. It's about stopping what this flu can become.

But if the flu isn't currently very lethal, it does appear to be extremely infectious. The reason is simple enough: It's a new strain of flu that human beings don't have resistance against. Not only can it spread very quickly, it is spreading very quickly. We've hit five on the World Health Organization's flu threat level. It only goes up to six. Six denotes a pandemic: The flu has spread to two or more WHO regions. And most experts expect we'll be there in days.

It's true that people shouldn't panic in the sense of stockpiling ammunition and duct taping windows. But this is a situation in which a short-term overreaction might be the best strategy. That would mean that people really curtail the sort of activities that abet the spread of infection: They cancel non-essential travel, bike rather than take the subway, wash their hands obsessively, etc. It's not crazy stuff. And unlike in financial crises or recessions, where cutting spending worsens the downturn, the sensible actions for fearful individuals will actually improve the probable outcomes.

I think the media has a responsibility to deliver realistic information, not conservative scaremongering that over-hype the threat and unjustifiably blame illegal immigrants and not what appears to be the central cause, factory farms. And I think there is a responsibility to keep this virus in perspective. At the same time, Klein's warning seems eminently reasonable. We don't have enough information to blow this off completely.

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