Spam Journalism #81

By Jim McVeagh 02/10/2010

Spam Journalism: The spurious use of sensational headlines to add spice to an otherwise pointless article

I was amused to see this article is the Herald yesterday. Talk about trying to rehash old news…

Two more deaths but swine flu cases fall

Twenty deaths this year have been swine flu-related but health authorities say the total number of flu-like infections has been lower than previous years – and has fallen well below average levels.

I can’t really believe that anyone would still be trying to make out (via headlines, rather than the story, at any rate) that Swine flu is anything more than simple flu. This flu season has been quite a lot milder than last year, or the year before, partly because the hype of swine flu pushed more people into getting the vaccines and partly because H1N1 was the predominant flu this season. This means that the flu vaccine was effective (not always true) and the pool of potential victims was small because many people had H1N1 last year. I’m picking that when we get our final flu mortality stats for this year, they will be substantially lower than preceding years. So articles about flu deaths this year are just pure sensationalism.

The MacDoctor would like to point out that there are much more interesting things about the H1N1 “pandemic” than the number of deaths it caused (unless, of course, you are unfortunate to have lost loved ones to the disease – I have no wish to minimalise your loss). There are some very interesting lessons to be learnt.

Firstly, if you are a budding bio-terrorist, then H1N1 has demonstrated quite neatly that Mexico is a superb location to release your killer virus. Conflicting and confusing surveillance, large rural areas and generally poor social conditions ensure that your virus will build up a large, infected population, well before anyone notices. If you tried releasing the virus in a first world country, you might find that the epidemic is picked up and quelled before it really gets going – so that’s too risky. But you need the travel capabilities of the first world country to get the virus around the world. That makes Mexico perfect, as it has a large, extremely porous border with the US. Build up your virus pool in Mexico and have it walk across into the US. If I was Obama, I would be taking Arizona’s concerns about border security somewhat more seriously.

Secondly, H1N1 has ably demonstrated that the various organisations charged with monitoring disease controls are almost completely useless. Any viral threat of consequence will be uncontainable well before any bureaucratic decision can be made. Witness the almost glacial way the WHO reacted to H1N1. The CDC and New Zealand’s public health directorate were better, but still WAY too slow. To illustrate the NZ situation, I posted on my first encounter with a potential H1N1 patient – 48 hours after Flight NZ1 (our “Ground Zero” for swine flu) had landed! It is just not reasonable to expect bureaucracies to react with any speed in a highly fluid potential disaster situation. Unfortunately, the only alternative to a bureaucracy reacting according to protocol is to enable a single person to be able to assume Gerry-Brownlee-style dictatorial powers at a moments notice. Not sure if New Zealand is ready for that considering the flak going up about the Christchurch Enabling Act.

The final point I want to make is that it is starkly obvious that the vaccine industry will not come to our rescue should we be hit by a really nasty virus. The lag time for  an effective vaccine for H1N1 was several months and that was for a virus (influenza) for which we have an entire rapid manufacturing industry already set up. A vaccine for an unusual virus is likely to take a lot longer to make. There is still no effective vaccine against HIV despite 20+ years of effort.

So the lessons learnt from our H1N1 experience are all bleak. Much bleaker than a couple more deaths from swine flu. That is just lazy spam journalism. A journalist should be asking questions like:

  • What precautions are we taking against a deliberate attack of bio-terroism?
  • What are we doing to improve our disease monitoring systems?
  • What are we doing to improve the speed and accuracy of our disease response?
  • What are we doing to ensure we can provide adequate health services in the event of an epidemic?

After all, the government keeps telling us we should be prepared in the event of an emergency like the Christchurch earthquake, surely we can expect it to be prepared for a more or less inevitable epidemic?


Related posts:

  1. Stable Swine
  2. Swine Flu Update 9
  3. Needle Point