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The Paranoia Pandemic

by Abdullah Alhomoud September 8, 2009

Reaction to the H1N1 virus has been blown out of proportion.

If you found yourself in an airport over the summer, you may have seen an infrared camera being used to scan body temperatures of passengers.

You might have also seen signs informing passersby about ways to prevent the spread of this virus – including such advice as “don’t hug or shake hands.” Maybe you even saw people in line at the boarding gate wearing face-masks. Sure, some of these people may have been erring on the side of caution, but the majority are a tad too paranoid about the spread of the H1N1 virus.

Let’s get things straight. The seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people in an average year, yet it is never called a pandemic. And there’s a good reason. Maybe we need a reminder of what a pandemic is. It is a global outbreak of a disease. A pandemic does not translate into hundreds of thousands of deaths. In fact, at the beginning of the outbreak, the World Health Organization said it was of moderate severity.

However, in May WHO declared that swine flu had reached pandemic status. This was followed by alarming media coverage, despite the fact that that less than 3,000 people have died of H1N1 in the last six months.

To compare, the last pandemic flu, which occurred in 1968, killed approximately 700,000 people worldwide. Even though the pandemic lasted for two years, deaths peaked about three months after the outbreak.

Many media outlets magnified WHO’s declaration by not covering the flu fairly. For example, some major media outlets broadcasted messages like, “The H1N1 virus has spread rapidly across the globe, and could mutate into a more virulent form.” Hearing news like this makes people become hysteric. It’s no wonder some schools replaced handshakes with head nods at graduation ceremonies last year.

It is perfectly normal for a virus to mutate and infect more people – yet that is hardly ever mentioned in the news. It would seem absurd for a person to refuse a handshake during a normal flu season.

There should be more articles about how most H1N1 cases to date have been mild and treatable, and the global number of deaths is a small fraction of the total number of people infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S.

Six months ago, it might have looked like H1N1 was going to kill a great many people, but that did not happen. Sure, the world needs to prepare for the possibility of a strain of flu that could kill hundreds of thousands of people like in 1968, but let’s not jump the gun.

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