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Overreacting to Swine flu?
Scripps Howard News Service


April 30, 2009

Swine flu could soon be slaying scads of us, some think, and the Indiana health commissioner says don't shake hands with anyone. Vice president Joe Biden says try to avoid subways or planes. European governments say don't travel to the United States. And people are buying up protective facemasks left and right.

Maybe a deadly pandemic is in fact on its way - some reputable experts think as much. But maybe the much-cited example of the millions-killing Spanish flu of 1918 is less a guide to our immediate health future than the swine flu scare of 1976.

Gerald Ford was president that year. He got caught up in the panic, spent $135 million on productions of a vaccine, urged people to get shots and, according to one account I ran across, even appeared on TV getting a shot himself.

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By: John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri
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That was a brave thing to do, as it turned out. While the flu didn't kill anyone in the United States, the shots did kill and caused neurological disorders in yet more, leaving people paralyzed as a consequence of nothing but unwarranted dread.

It's reported that this current flu is dissimilar in a variety of ways, and it's said, too, that the slight signals of the moment could portend something large and awful, especially since this flu is easily spread by human contact.

The last time I looked, Mexico was reporting more than 2,000 cases and 170 deaths (although the World Health Organization said confirmed fatalities were in single digits). There had been one death in the United States -- a Mexican child -- but nowhere else. New cases were cropping up in various spots around the world, though not in large numbers. The reported concern was that even if the flu is not yet fiercely virulent -- it so far seems mild -- it could mutate into something worse.

A voice of wisdom on such issues is Michael Fumento, a science writer. When some scientists were worrying about millions dying almost immediately from bird flu several years back, he calmly looked at the facts and said it just didn't seem likely. He was right. Concerning the 1918 flu that did result in millions of deaths, he points out that most died from secondary infections that today could be treated by antibiotics and other medicines that did not then exist.

Fumento gives us some context, too. Seasonal flu hits millions of Americans every year, leaving an estimated 36,000 dead. Those who die from flu are usually the least healthy among us, which is why flu fatalities are far more likely in undeveloped than in developed countries.

President Obama is seeking $1.5 billion to develop a vaccine for the new flu, demonstrating, among other things, how much prices have gone up since Ford's time. This move on his part may be wise. It could take several months to find something effective, and you don't want to postpone the effort until you know for sure that this flu's dangers merit the investment. Actually administering the vaccine still might not be advisable after you got it, though.

This much seems sure -- such decisions should not be driven by speculative fear, possibly giving us a cure worse than the disease. The overly prompt warnings about not coming to the United States are themselves worrisome. If governments go so far as to disrupt trade out of flu concerns, they could make the recession worse and deprive nations of necessary products, one Internet piece warns.

While I pretend to no insight into the flu other than what I read, I do know that news outlets exaggerate. I know that politicians overstate things. And I know that unintended consequences time and again wreck the best-laid plans of mice and men.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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