hey, where did swine flu go?
Does anyone remember the breathless reports of a new strain of flu getting ready to wipe out some significant percentage of the world’s population? You know, the gloom and doom of media outlets tallying up infections, estimating death tolls and almost savoring the atmosphere of general chaos and hype? Conspiracy theorists went wild and people were asking whether we’re ready to deal with a full blown pandemic (and we’re not) in the worst case scenario. But then, news finally filtered down that swine flu wasn’t much worse than regular old flu and the coverage ground to a halt.
Of course, swine flu didn’t go away just because the media hype around it stopped. In fact, the WHO declared it a pandemic on July 11th and warned that it had the potential to mutate into a stronger and more virulent form as it keeps spreading. So far, there are about 144 reported deaths from swine flu compared to about half a million deaths expected from your run of the mill influenza strains every year. Still, the flu can cause nasty complications, have a serious effect on productivity and put additional strain on medical organizations which would need more vaccines and medications to treat additional cases. And of course, the flu strain will be using the bodies of the infected as incubators where all sorts of strange mutations can happen, which is why the WHO is warning not to get complacent just because swine flu isn’t the next Black Plague. Yet.
Now, it would be beneficial for the virus to be as non-lethal as possible. After all, viruses need hosts to reproduce and the longer the host stays alive, the more copies it can make. Horrifying plagues that can kill up to 90% of their victims tend to burn themselves out very quickly because the hosts die before they can adequately spread to sustain the viruses’ numbers. The most effective viruses from an evolutionary standpoint, are the ones that go pretty much undetected by the infected organism. The host has a long, healthy life and the virus spreads to its metaphorical heart’s content. Ideally, swine flu would mutate to lose potency and become one of those viruses we can quickly and easy shrug off. But since mutations are random and it’s up to natural selection to determine survival rates, we can’t bet on that scenario.
And there’s one more thing to consider. Why did swine flu fall off our radar when we realized that right now, it wasn’t the long awaited killer influenza after all? Well, look no further than the media. Instead of trying to report the facts and tempering its coverage with other newsworthy matters, it honed in on the outbreak and kept asking how bad it will be, how many will be infected, how many will die and whether we’re about to face the kind of pandemic the aftermath of which would at least equal that of the Spanish flu. Then, when the hype was impossible to sustain and people found out that swine flu really isn’t the new doomsday virus, the media just discarded the topic. The WHO’s declaration was a passing little newsbit, just a few seconds of the media’s time.
It’s this disparity between the initial coverage of the outbreak and what’s happening as the disease spreads which tells us something important about the kind of media we have. Instead of trying to educate or inform us when we really need cold, hard facts, our news channels are just trying to keep us glued to the TV with sensational tales and wild speculation based on what will bring in ratings rather than what people need to know to take care of themselves in the face of a serious health hazard.